Chapter Thirty-One: The Fifth Master
"What is the meaning of victory?"
"She really does seem quite determined, my lord." Abaya stood quietly in the Shinjo's hulking shadow, watching as Banriki considered his champion's fevered training in the open field below, "It is not likely that the ronin will be able to extract himself from Tesukiko's challenge with honor."
The big man nodded, not turning to meet the magistrate's gaze. "Tesukiko has her pride, even as a Moto," Banriki's eyes tightened, seeing the small scarlet trace that ran along her throat, "the swordsman must have wounded her; this behavior does not make sense to me."
Abaya nodded. "I believe you are more correct than you realize, my lord."
The Shinjo met his servant's eyes, a frown marring his huge face as he stroked his long beard nervously. "Dissuade her if you can, Abaya-san. If not, do your best to assemble the event in private; a blood feud is not the thing for courtiers' eyes."
"I will try, Lord Banriki…you know, of course, that you could simply order Tesukiko to abandon her challenge. Koshin-dono is a guest of our family; there would be no questions if you dismissed her." Abaya's face turned serious, "It would be best to avoid a bloody fight."
"You are a wise young man," the Shinjo said with a smile, "but you do not understand a warrior's soul."
The Moto was still training that night, when her enemy came to call.
"I do not want to fight you," Koshin said from his place on the edge of the darkness. "Not like this."
Tesukiko did not slow her whirling motions, striking the air with a reckless abandon that set her skin shimmering with glistening sweat, "What you want means nothing, Koshin; you did not issue this challenge." Even now, her body distracted him; an oath was little proof against thoughts of temptation.
The swordsman stepped forward, his body coming so close that the Unicorn was forced to stop her kata. His grey eyes seemed strangely bright in the dimness of night, "If you want me, then fight me here and now. No witnesses, no words. Just the two of us."
"And her," the Moto said simply.
"What in you makes you bear such hatred? To a person that you never knew!"
Tesukiko advanced, holding her knife menacingly near his throat, "Still you do not understand! It is not a matter of the love that you carry inside…that is noble, something to be admired. What I cannot forgive is the effect such emotion has upon you, who aspires to know himself as a true master. That is why we must fight." She paused, seeming to have more to say, but then turned, stepping back and into the moonlight.
The ronin had not moved since she had begun, but he moved now. "Teach me; I will abandon the sword as long as you desire, Tesukiko-sama." He drew out the blade Ukigumo, holding it and its companion out for her to see, "Teach me whatever you wish. I will cast this away."
Did I really say that?
The Moto made a face, as if she had tasted bitterness in full. "You would understand nothing. If you are what I believe you to be," she said, her green eyes burning into him even as she began those fluid motions again, "then you would never learn, and sooner die if I forced you into such a bargain. A wild horse can never abide any cage."
Koshin remained where he was, glimpsing for the first time the unusual wisdom that the Moto grasped with such flawless simplicity. "I have my honor, beyond the blade."
"What you have," the woman said with a frown from her face as the wind mussed her short hair, "and what you lack, will become clear to you soon enough." With that, she was gone into the darkness, the howl of the night masking the sound of her steps. "That will be my lesson."
Once her footsteps had receded into the darkness, the swordsman began to train.
The air that hung about the Unicorn training grounds was like a funeral; though brightly arranged and assembled, the bushi and courtiers of the Clans were almost silent as they took their places about the field. Rumor and fact had spread quickly despite Abaya's best efforts, and all the bushi knew some version of the feelings of each duelist, as well as the legends of their skills.
Koshin the ronin was an outsider; a man without heritage or name. Yet he was a master of Kakita and Mirumoto styles, and had slain the great Satsukiru, defeated a Yoritomo sensei, and slain bandits and thieves in the name of honor. He had earned the respect of the Shinjo and Utaku commanders, though he remained aloof, forever alone.
His odds, if such things were weighed in matters of honor, were set at three against one.
Moto Tesukiko was a proud warrior; her mother had sworn fealty after entering the Empire thirty years ago, and the woman had served with honor ever since. She had known conflict, served as liaison to magistrates, and hunted and slain creatures of the Shinomen as well as samurai and thieves; she was the champion of the Moto warriors. Those that knew her knew that there was more than technique or power; Tetsukiko was a wisdom Rokugan was not ready to know.
Few of her kinsmen would bet against her.
Now, the two stood considering one another in steely silence, set ten feet from the other. All around them, the winds of spring whirled and danced, scattering both fighters' hair and setting their clothes dancing with newfound life. But even here, death lingered...and death would have its due.
Koshin closed his eyes; everything was so acute now, almost painfully intense. Unbidden, his mind was thinking, calculating; considering how he could win. And every time, when he met Tesukiko's ready eyes, the ronin knew the truth.
To triumph, she must die.
"Take your stances," ordered the Shinjo herald, his high voice signaled by Banriki's gaze. The two fell into ready stances automatically, the swordsman with his left side forward, and the Moto squarely set, with her hand resting comfortably on the hilt of the heavy blade.
Tesukiko's voice was unreadable, "Begin."
For a moment, just one, Koshin considered it. He had already defeated the Moto; there was little chance to learn more. The samurai's hand tensed, then relaxed, his muscles weakening, his resolve starting to fall.
There was no shame in refusing a fight that he did not want.
As if she read his emotions from his heart, the girl started speaking heated words, "You cannot refuse me now; I would hunt you on the open fields if you do. No, this is the chance to prove yourself to me, Koshin; refuse it and prove your flaws…your weakness…forever."
The ronin's eyes rose. Courtiers and bushi held breath at her insult; none more acutely than those who had trained beneath the swordsman's baleful gaze. Koshin seized hold of his wakizashi tightly, drawing its crystal edge and holding it to one side as the Moto held her stance. "My blade cannot match yours in speed," he said darkly, considering the sword's edge, "but this one can do that, and more. This fight is done. You stand down."
Tesukiko stared into his eyes for a moment, "Your weakness will still defeat you."
"Stand down," Koshin whirled the sword, all thoughts of mercy draining away in the deafening roar of rage, "or be silent and fight."
The strike was not as an iaijutsu blow; not a flurry of poise and skill. Both warriors threw their blades upon one another, arms extended in two vicious thrusts. Koshin turned his wakizashi, inverting its hold, while Tesukiko cut with her foreign knife extended towards her challenger's heart.
Both slid past one another, their momentum carrying their bodies away. Several samurai cried out, fearing both had killed the other, and others merely marveled at the swiftness of the blades.
The first sound was that of silk, parting slowly from each warrior's chest. Koshin stood, frozen, waiting for the feeling that seemed destined to come. His kimono fell apart slowly, its sides catching and fluttering in the wind.
But the next sound was a slow, groaning parting born of a flesh that was not his own. Moto Tesukiko shuddered, her stomach slashed deep and wide. The master's heavy knife clattered dully into the dusty ground, and the woman collapsed in a pool of crimson, shugenja and bushi both rushing to her side.
Slowly, the burning anger drained out of Koshin, leaving him to stare at the blooded ribbon, shining on the end of his ancestral blade…
It was two days later when Koshin was called to her tent, resting alone far from the fields of battle. The high grasses all but concealed the high-topped structure, and the samurai was astonished to find no shugenja or guards. He knelt, laying his swords, even his sacred wakizashi, to the ground.
The wind swept the flap open before him, and the ronin moved inside.
Moto Tesukiko lay on a bed of cloth and furs, her stomach bound and bloodied. Her ruddy skin had faded pale, and those green eyes seemed less brilliant than before. The girl smiled weakly, as Koshin looked from side to side, "No one has tended to your wounds? Surely the Horiuchi or the Iuchi…"
"It would do no good," the master said, holding her smile, "I could be healed, but I would never fully recover. I would rather be nothing, than a burden to the clan."
Koshin turned away. "There was no need."
Tesukiko's voice was weaker now. "That is true. And still you struck."
He said nothing, and so the girl continued, "Your ambition, not your love, led you to this. The heart of one that is a true master, that fights because he loves to fight, has no room in his heart for empty pride."
"You could have spoken. I would have listened."
"You would have listened," she said softly, sadly, "but you could never understand. Men like you, who live for the victory, are those most in need of a defeat." Her large hand slid over the rough bindings, "I taught the lesson the only way I knew."
"My weakness did defeat me," he said.
Tesukiko smiled broader, ignoring the obvious pain, "Your weaknesses defeat you because you allow them to. I used your love, and you turned it to hate and failure. The mortal man is not perfection, Kakita," her use of his family name startled Koshin, but the Moto was too weak not to continue, "You will n-never achieve mastery by denying your failings."
"Turn weakness to strength; change division to harmony. Fortune comes to those who understand their weakness as well as their strength."
The bushi bowed low, "I will hold your lesson in your heart, Tesukiko-dono." He turned, seeing that the final moments were upon you. "One question…why make the sacrifice?" The question was something the samurai had never asked before; a question of doubt and possible dishonor.
"If I hadn't," the knife master said with quiet finality, turning
on her bed to look away, "then I would not be worthy of being called