Chapter Thirty-Seven: Chasing Ghosts
"The men who have mastered the sword, I could count with
a single hand. The men whom the sword has mastered, I could not count with the
stars in the sky…" - Mirumoto Uso
The hot springs on the edge of the Kakita provinces were small and tranquil; they nestled in the edges of the great World Spine Mountains, welcoming travelers after a long road. It was here that Koshin chose to begin Ujirou's training, removing his kimono in the warm air of summer, and stepping slowly into the empty pool.
"We will start with balance," he said as the Daidoji emulated his motion, folding his pale blue kimono and setting it on the ground.
The boy nodded, and reached for his sword. Koshin froze him with a click of his teeth and a smile.
"Koshin-sensei? What is wrong?"
"Balance yourself," he said, drawing Ukigumo's blade. "The sword is a reflection of who we are, Ujirou. Tense, angry, tired or strong; all things are reflected in the motions of the blade. If you can not balance yourself, can you balance the blade?"
The child nodded, his eyes strangely composed and silent. Together, the two readied themselves in silence, both focused on the steel of Rensei's ancient blade.
Nikkan had always said to him that truth was gained in silence, and now Koshin could see. As they meditated, surrounded by heat and damp with perspiration, the samurai studied his newfound ward. Ujirou was strong, even for a samurai child; his muscles did not shudder, his focus did not sway. Focused, he forced himself to silence, sheer will holding when the hours drained his strength away.
Thus was Koshin privileged with his first view of Daidoji Ujirou; of what he was, and of what he could yet become.
When night came, the work was finished, and Ujirou's little body slumped. Koshin nodded, sheathing Ukigumo swiftly, "You are strong for one so young, Ujirou-san. Stronger than many samurai that I have met in my journey. I think that you have great potential for growth."
The little body bowed, still hushed in nervous silence by the presence of the swordsman. Now that night had fallen, the Daidoji could better see the effects of Hitomi upon him; the mark of immortality burned azure within the ronin's eyes.
While Ujirou dressed, his sensei built a fire against the darkness, calling the boy to warm himself against the night. Summer was upon them, and already it was warm enough without the crackling flames; even so, Ujirou drew close to them, suddenly keenly aware of the distance between himself and all of life.
"You have the look of many questions," Koshin said with a lopsided smile. "Feel free to speak, Ujirou. I am a student as much as you are; something unasked is something you will never know."
Ujirou did not hesitate; the questions bubbled up from inside the young samurai, fighting one another for the right to first know. "Why are you so strong, Koshin-sensei?"
Koshin blinked at the question, "What do you mean, Ujirou-san?"
Again Koshin saw that focus, as the young man reformed the words, changed them to better ask what he wished to know. "My mother wants me to be a strong swordsman, Koshin-sensei. She chose you to teach me. What has made you so strong?"
"Your mother chose me for lack of a better answer," the ronin said freely. "As for strength…strength is a tool, Ujirou-san. It can protect you, and aid you. I have needed it more than most bushi have, perhaps. If you like, do not think of me as stronger; think of me as someone more focused on my goals."
Ujirou nodded; he understood focus as well as a twelve year-old boy could. Koshin smiled, "And why do you want to be strong, Ujirou-san? You have talent, but to excel enough to gain the notice of the Kakita," the ronin suddenly felt quite ancient, gazing into the Daidoji's large eyes, "you must have some reasons to seek the path of the sword."
It was a question that the boy was not prepared for. Ujirou's eyes lowered, staring into the fire, searching for some truth in the flames. A boy or man of lesser will might have stumbled for an answer, but Daidoji Ujirou remained silent, not answering until he found excellence in the response.
"I want to be strong. I want to serve my family; I want to protect the Empire."
Koshin would have expected nothing else, from a child born of the Crane. "Strength is like chasing ghosts, Ujirou-san; it cannot be hunted, can never be found. But one day, if you are diligent, then one day you will find that it has found you."
"Do not train to be stronger, Ujirou," he finished with a stern tone. "Train to be better. Strength alone is brittle, and will fail you. I have walked that road."
"Hai, sensei," Ujirou answered with a bow.
So began a long chasing of ghosts, as the student and the sensei made their way north, along the Emperor's Roads. Koshin did not wander; his purpose was, as always, focused on what could be learned. The wanderer had never been able to fully atone for the loss of Akodo Isaido. Part of swordsmanship was respect and reverence; those lessons Koshin never tired of relearning.
And while he learned, Ujirou followed.
It was a cool day for summer when it happened; Koshin was kneeling in meditation, to one side of the road. Ujirou was nearby, practicing as always, his sword already singing with a greater skill and ease. His sensei's words came in tiny hints and corrections; little seeds, from which something greater could grow.
The voice was ready and reserved, filled with more command than Koshin's possessed, "You there, ronin? What is your name?"
Koshin rose, "I am Koshin." The man before him had come upon the two while riding; he was a Shiba, dressed in the bright red and gold. His face was deeply rutted by time and service, and even while riding he bore himself with poise and flair.
"Greetings, honorable Koshin-dono," the Phoenix man said with a bow, obviously forcing the symbol of respect in the presence of a mere ronin, no matter how skilled with a blade. "I am Shiba Touji, servant of the sensei of the Shiba Ryu. I have brought this message," he said, drawing out a folded paper, perfectly creased and marked with the Shiba swords-and-flames.
Ujirou drew near to his sensei, who moved to allow the boy to see better. The letter was well written, in the high language. The man's hand had a swordsman's flourish; and it read with a warrior's tongue:
For the honor of the Shiba School, you are invited to perform in a test of skills at Shiro Shiba. This is to be considered a challenge of both technique and honor. The bearers of this message will escort you by the quickest of the Emperor's Roads.
We await your arrival in our courts.
Assistant Swordmaster - Shiba Ryu
As he lowered the letter, the eyes of both samurai and student immediately rose to meet him. Neither of them breathed a word; the Shiba simply waited, impassively, his calm face neither impatient nor bored. Ujirou was holding his breath in forced silence, for obviously he knew what was to come.
"You are a disciple of Dekai-sama and his master?"
Touji nodded, "I am a senior student at the Shiba School, Koshin-dono. I have been charged with seeing you safely to our dojo…should you choose to accept our clan's invitation." There was an insult buried somewhere in Touji's courtesy, an innocent mocking of one fighting man to another's style.
Koshin just smiled, taking one look at the Daidoji's frown. "We are ready."
The roads of the Lion Clan were well maintained; even now, in the heat of summer, it was an easy path for the palanquin. Koshin detested the idea of being trapped inside a small box, but the Shiba had gone to great expense to arrange everything; he could hardly deny him.
He was their protector, after all.
Since they had left the western provinces, Touji had said nothing to either Ujirou or his sensei; Shiba had a reputation for being dour, nervous samurai, and this one did nothing to threaten even a slight change in their image. The ronin sighed as Touji passed by on the palanquin to the left, giving less than a nod to the two as he passed.
It was starting to be a very long journey.
"So, Touji-san," Koshin said the next time the plain-faced bushi passed him, "what is the name of the current Shiba high sensei? I have heard that…"
The Shiba interrupted him easily, not turning his eyes from the trees beyond the road. "Sensei Dekai has been acting sensei for seven years, since grandmaster Mori retired to continue his training among the Asako. Do not concern yourself; our master is quite skilled." Again Touji's voice took up that insulting tone, as if he resented the ronin's voice. "He will give you all the challenge you require."
Koshin bore it with as much grace as he could. "Of that, I had no doubt. The Shiba have a reputation for skill…in particular, I have heard that few bushi can match one of you with a naginata in your hands." It was a clever thing to mention, besides being true…both of the Shiba carried the curved polearms over one shoulder.
Touji nodded, for the first time turning to look at him through the palanquin slits. "We find it a useful weapon, which many samurai do not understand as they should. Do you have any skill in yarijutsu, Koshin-dono?"
The bushi shrugged, "I have trained with it, though my skill is not very great. I would like to see a demonstration of naginata-jutsu from your sensei, when we arrive." Koshin had no need to force the words here; even his Kakita sensei had spoken of the powers of the Shiba warriors; to witness them in open combat would be a great joy. Ujirou was smiling openly; even Shiba could not escape such an innocent face.
"I am certain that will be possible," Touji said quietly.
With that, the warrior returned to his patrol without further words. Though they spoke several other times in the long journey, Koshin would always consider those few traded words their most interesting bout of wisdom…for Shiba Touji was truly a boring man.
"Do you understand why we are here, Ujirou-san?"
The young boy sensed a trap; he smiled slightly, wrinkling his nose as he thought. His sensei was not a good liar; Koshin broke out in a smile whenever he tried. "Chasing ghosts, Koshin-sensei?"
The ronin smiled, wondering what was waiting for the two of them, in the
quiet Shiba lands. "You have a keen mind for a young man, Ujirou-san. Pay
attention. There will be many more things to seek out before our lessons here