Chapter Thirty-Four: One Man's Honor
"It is the choices we make that define us, more than any
name or blood."
Koshin could not remember how many days he had sat on the edges of the small shrine; it was slightly less than forever, by the bushi's estimation. Silence had never come easily to the samurai since his battle with the Goju; too many memories, too many voices in his mind.
Now, however, he could hear the sound of emptiness more clearly.
The days had not been easy at first; Kutsu's challenge was still fresh in his mind, and Koshin did not take such challenges lightly. He had very nearly underestimated the monk's strength; the warrior had been testing him, he had seen that in the ease of the shattered strike.
Had he fought so poorly in a real fight, the samurai would not have survived.
"Seek all you like," an impatient voice said from behind him, "you will never achieve emptiness like that."
Koshin smiled; he had sensed the samurai several minutes ago, "Anukeiko of Bayushi."
The last time Koshin had seen the Bayushi samurai, she had moved with a speed and grace that the swordsman could barely follow. Now, merely the sound of her approach was enough for him to read her; something was bothering the samurai-ko…and Scorpion were not the type of people to upset without good cause.
"You will forgive my appearance," the samurai said as he rose, his short beard covering the edges of his thin face. "It has been a long time since I have been in another's company."
She made a face at the ronin's healing cuts and unkempt clothes, but said nothing, taking a seat beside the bushi to stare at the crude statues beyond. "Master Akijin is dead," she said simply, making a deliberate motion to hide her eyes.
Koshin turned his head slightly, "I am sorry; I know how much his wisdom meant to your clan."
Anukeiko's slender gaze tightened, but she did not turn to face the ronin. "You know that Akijin-dono was a strong man, Koshin-san. You were the only one to defeat him…" Her hands tightened around her kimono edge, "He was killed in a duel."
"Akijin would not want vengeance, Anukeiko-san. Whatever man killed him, I am sure that it was a clean duel, and that he requires no retribution."
The samurai-ko met his eyes now, "A clean duel…with a creature of the Shadowlands." She rose, moving to kneel before him with head pressed to the ground.
"You know me, Koshin…you know that I am not the type to beg. But I am begging now. There is no Bayushi that can defeat this creature; for the last two weeks, we have tried." The Scorpion drew her right sleeve back, revealing several long scars, "These are his marks; to one he did not consider worthy."
Koshin examined the wounds, keeping an old memory as he looked them over. "He is skilled."
Anukeiko nodded, "And clever. So far, the creature has killed twelve of my students, and seven Shosuro. We are not prepared for such skill or power…he is beyond us." It sounded like those words were the hardest the Bayushi had ever spoken. "He has studied our techniques thoroughly."
"Why come to me?" Koshin asked. "Surely the Imperial Legions would be better suited; I have heard many fine things about their leader Toturi Tsudao."
But the Scorpion girl just laughed, "My lord would be embarrassed; the creatures that infest the Shinomen are our concern. He would never understand the situation properly, and you are the only man that the Bayushi can turn to without fear of embarrassment."
Koshin smiled, "Were I still a Crane, Anukeiko-san, you would not speak so."
"I would ally with a Unicorn," the Bayushi hissed, "to destroy Shimekiri."
"Are you tired, Koshin-chan?" The words were mocking; Kakita Shimekiri was very good at getting people angry. Some would call it a gift…
To the child, it was a constant torment.
Koshin stood up, huffing and wheezing from the long fight. The fourteen-year-old was sweaty and aching; he was the only other member of the class still standing to fight the elder bushi. Kakita Shimekiri was only a year his senior, but the student was tough, quick; a natural with the sword. He was everything the young Koshin was not; everything he wanted to be.
Despite his master's lack of attention, Shimekiri really was gifted with the katana. He lowered his bokken with a low, mocking grace, staring across the dojo into Koshin's angry eyes. "Attack quickly, or die."
But Koshin did not draw; the young man knew that he was not fast enough. Instead, he lifted another fallen sword from the ground, gripping the pair tightly with both hands. His young voice broke as he spoke, "You attack me, Shimekiri…if you want to taste the ground!"
"Kakita Shimekiri was one of the most vicious iaijutsu students the Kakita had ever seen," Koshin said, shifting his body in a vain attempt to avoid the uncomfortable tightness that pressed him against Anukeiko inside the palanquin. "He was unstoppable with a sword. The sensei never seemed to notice him, but we all did. He was a prodigy…not to mention a terror."
Anukeiko had removed her mask, and her nose wrinkled in protest, "All bullies seem invincible."
But the ronin shook his head, "I would be inclined to agree with you, but my memory is too keen for that to be true. When Shimekiri…disappeared, he had won fourteen official duels," Koshin turned, glancing out into the fading sun, "to say nothing of the many illegal ones he fought and killed for."
"No, Shimekiri was no bully…he was something far more frightening. He was hatred."
The Scorpion smiled sourly, "If you are so afraid of him…"
Instantly, the ronin turned, "I did not say that! I have wanted to show Shimekiri the Mirumoto style for longer than you could know; I had no idea that he was still alive…so to speak." His hand was running easily over the edge of Ukigumo's sheath, brushing the edges of its silver guard.
Anukeiko laid her head softly against the side of the rocking palanquin, content for the moment to leave the samurai in his lost thoughts.
Shimekiri's thin face slipped into an angry smirk. He pointed at the second sword with his own, "You dishonor Kakita, you coward! I had heard that your blood was soiled with Mirumoto nonsense, but I had no idea that you were really a Ni-Ken no Tsuru!" The laughter of his opponent burned Koshin, but something inside him told the boy that he must remain calm.
"Be quiet," he snapped back. "Now you attack me!"
But Shimekiri was quite experienced in mocking, and knew that he could raise support from his battered companions, "Even here in Kakita's dojo you resist our ways…am I the only one that feels my ancestor's rage?" Several students stood, anger showing on their faces. Little Koshin looked about to cry for a moment, and it was then that Shimekiri sprung…
"This is the place where it happened," Anukeiko said softly as she stepped into the forest grove. The trees of summer were in full blossom now, choking off the depths of the Shinomen from all but the boldest light. The ronin immediately knelt along the ground, running his hands across the slender grasses, parts still torn and broken from a heavy body's fall.
After a moment, the samurai rose, "I will wait here for him."
The Scorpion nodded, hoping that Koshin knew what he said. "I will have food and water brought for you every half day; if there is anything more you need, tell the messenger. You will know him because his mask is crystal and he wears a jade medallion; take nothing from any other visitor."
Nodding, the samurai settled himself down to sleep, laying his swords casually to one side. Anukeiko glanced at the lazy motions with a question on her eyes, and for once the swordsman noticed the Bayushi's gaze.
"No matter what Shimekiri has become, Anukeiko-san, he will not attack from ambush," Koshin's eyes grew distant. "No matter what he has become, he is samurai, and this has been a long time in coming."
Had Shimekiri merely continued his taunting, Koshin would have attacked and lost, or slunk away. But the elder student attacked, and that attack brought the fury boiling to the front of the little boy's soul. Moving with a calmness that shocked the class, the right sword caught Shimekiri's attack, twisted it, and very nearly flung it away.
Koshin did not have the strength for a disarm yet, but the move staggered his enemy, revealing his throat and face. The boy jerked his left arm, raising the bokken high and fast, smashing Shimekiri's chin into the air. It would not have been a lethal hit, but it would have scarred; a worse fate in many samurai's eye.
Shimekiri's response was fast and even more brutal. His freed bokken descended with vengeful fury, smashing the smaller boy's body with all its might. Koshin felt himself fly backwards; had it been a real sword, he would have been struck in two. His little body turned two circles as he rolled across the dojo floor, other students shouting out in shock as he finally came to the ground.
A few students moved forward to see to him, but they parted quickly, when they saw what was to come.
Stepping forward with bloody mouth, the tall Kakita boy raised his bokken, which little Koshin could see had lost its tip in the last strike. The young man's body ached horribly; he could do nothing but wait for the retribution to fall.
But it did not fall. Shimekiri gazed for another long moment, then tucked the shattered weapon over his shoulder, a strange look of respect in those normally baleful eyes, "Not bad, Ni-Ken no Tsuru." With that, and nothing more, the bushi turned and walked from the dojo, leaving Koshin to collect himself with a newfound pride.
From that day, the dark Kakita Shimekiri gave Kakita Koshin no more
trouble…though the nickname would last for many years.
The Past Returns…