Chapter Thirty-Eight: Before the Strike
"All games have rules, to be played by or broken."
The halls of Shiro Asako were wide and open; they suited the temperament of the man perfectly as his soft footsteps filled the air. As the Isawa walked quietly through the empty halls and gardens, he took a moment to sense the purity that surrounded the ancient fortress; at least this was a place of tranquility, even now. Even the awakening of the Last Wish had not changed all things…
As if his reflection was a key to an end, a loud battle cry shattered the harmony, jarring Isawa Bengaku from the depths of the Void.
"You interrupted me," he said, stepping out into one of the courtyards where a warrior remained poised. The sand garden had been swept, perfectly lined, and at the center balanced a middle-aged man, his body naked from the waist up, a naginata held high overhead. His movements had disturbed not one grain of sand; it was as if the Shiba samurai was one with the earth itself.
Shiba Mori raised his eyes angrily from his stance, the sand suddenly rippling as the warrior released his chi. "My apologies, Bengaku-sama, but you have interrupted me as well." Mori was not a man to be cowed by the power of a shugenja, not even that of a Void disciple of the Isawa's power. Most people would have knelt in apology to one that had studied beside Toturi Sezaru…but Mori would never be such a man.
That was why the Isawa respected him.
Bengaku waved a hand, straightening the sand garden with a whirl of idle power. "Have you achieved perfection of your power yet?" The ishiken asked the Shiba this every time he visited since Mori 'retired' to train in the riddles of the Asako, and every time there came the same sour answer.
"Fight me, shugenja, and we shall see."
The Isawa smiled; Bengaku was certainly the most powerful warrior the Shiba had; he surpassed even their Champion in sheer skill, and that was before he mastered the Asako's elemental riddles and games. "I have had Dekai invite the ronin warrior Koshin for a demonstration of skill. He is said to be an enlightened warrior, like you are."
Mori said nothing as he lowered his eyes, "You wish to test him…why?"
Bengaku smiled; he had a thin, pleasant face with a high topknot; which made him pleasing to most eyes. "Because the tales continue to grow, Mori-san. This man has defeated masters among the Yoritomo, the Hiruma, and the Bayushi…one does not achieve such victories without a touch of Void."
"Our clan is filled with the Void-touched, Bengaku-sama…try your words again." The Shiba walked first out of the sand garden, with the Void shugenja close behind. As his red robes wafted over the sand, Bengaku again realigned the edges of the Asako's sand. It was perfect, down to the smallest grain…as if the two had never been. "Why come to me with this?"
"Will you come and observe him, Mori-san?" Shiba Mori's understanding of the Shiba School was impressive, perhaps even perfect, but that was not why Bengaku had come. "The opinions of a Henshin are always welcome."
Mori turned immediately; he was a short man, who looked almost comical holding the long naginata blade. But his face, clean-shaven with long hair combed back over his broad shoulders, held no shortness of courage, strength or power. "Do not deceive me, Isawa-sama. This has little to do with the Shiba, and everything to do with you and your search."
"That is true," Bengaku said calmly, stepping away from the angry bushi.
Mori nodded after a moment, then turned and continued his way through the Asako halls. "In that case, I will gladly come and observe him…after all, Bengaku-sama, if this man exceeds your expectations, then he may be the challenge I have lacked for so long. Set the place, and I will be there."
"Let us hope that this challenge will herald the return of the Masters," the Void shugenja said softly, an attempt at respect strange upon his impassive tongue.
The Shiba said nothing, only smiling as they continued down the hall. Isawa Bengaku was loyal enough to the Phoenix, but it was no accident that he had arranged this match now. The ishiken was searching, hoping to find something deep in the soul of this clanless warrior; some secret of Void that even the Phoenix had long been denied.
None of that mattered to Mori, really. None of it did. Let the Isawa believe that they were masters of the Elements, keepers of the Void. A henshin knew better than to call himself a master so simply…but Shiba Mori was a master even so.
He could learn nothing more.
Darkness. Daidoji Ujirou had always been conscious of the darkness. To a Daidoji, even one so young, the shadows were welcome. They concealed him, protected him…he had been told many times about how they would help him on his path.
Only now did he come to the simplest of realizations to so many others…in the darkness, there was the unknown.
The palanquin rocked slightly in constant movement, not even bothering to stop for the night. Touji drove the two silently onward, his commanding voice urging the tired bearers on. Now, in the blackness within the bearing box, Ujirou had become aware of a new sensation; it was a pulsing, throbbing, like he had never known.
It was what hunger would have felt like, the boy imagined, if somehow it had been from without and not within.
The voice was low, dark and somehow foreboding. "What is it, Ujirou-san?" At that moment, from the opposite side of the palanquin, the boy became aware of his presence, revealed by the opening of two shining blue eyes. "Are you afraid?"
The answer was automatic. "No."
"You do not sound certain." Somewhere, beyond those eyes, the sensei was moving; him or his spirit, but one seemed to move. It was definitely hunger that Ujirou felt; a gnawing sensation that bit at his chi. "All men find some fear in the moment before the strike. A true swordmaster respects this fear; it is his reminder of the importance of his life."
"'The moment before the strike?'" Ujirou grew hushed; he had read and memorized Kakita's words more than three years ago…and those words were meaningful and clear.
"You have never been in a duel to the death, Ujirou," the words said as the eyes again drew closed. "Be thankful, and be observant. That moment will come, soon enough. When it does, you will understand what I mean. That moment is what many of us live for…the only place where we truly live."
The palanquin drew still, and was lowered. The light of many lanterns suddenly assailed the cracks and edges of the wooden structure. In the suddenness, the eyes of the student met the eyes of the teacher. Ujirou drew back in sudden shock.
They were dead eyes. Eyes that knew no love, no joy, that knew nothing beyond the edge of the blades. Koshin said nothing, as he slid the hated palanquin door open, stepping out into the courtyard of his challenger, and the dampness of the Shiba night.
Daidoji Ujirou had seen for the first time a man with deathless eyes. He would see them again.
"Domo, Touji-san," Koshin said to Touji as he finally freed himself of the hated palanquin at long last. The spring air swept over the courtyard of the ancient courtyard, stirring the soft grass as easily as the Phoenix flags. It was cooler this far north, but the ronin was too excited to notice the cold of the night. He was focused on one thing, which had filled his spirit for more than an hour now.
Behind him, Ujirou bowed in his own small thank you, his eyes growing wider with each moment's time.
Nothing about the Shiba fortress said anything to the wanderer about the current troubles of the Phoenix. Their Champion gone, their leaders dead or missing…they were the Phoenix, in one form or another truly immortal, and from this challenge, like all challenges, they would rise.
The Phoenix bushi looked left and right, searching for his sensei, no doubt. Koshin watched, intensely, as the Shiba's eyes settled on a tall, slender warrior, his body wrapped tightly in white and red, a few strands of long hair hiding the edges of calm, cold eyes. They were the eyes that the ronin had been instantly drawn too; eyes that held something ancient and strong.
"Dekai-sensei," Touji said as he knelt, "I present Koshin-dono, and his first apprentice, Daidoji Ujirou-san."
Striding forward, the assistant master bowed to the ronin and his pupil, an open smile filling his face as Koshin sensed the swordsman aura drain away. "I hope that your journey was pleasant…I know how much men like us abhor the tightness of a palanquin."
Koshin blinked at the man's words, allowing himself to grow more at ease. "You seem to know me well."
"Any man who leaps so easily and freely from a palanquin after a day and night of sitting is a walker, not a rider," the Phoenix explained with a wide grin on his thin face. The ronin nodded, adjusting his blades in his obi as he did. "I hope that you have not yet eaten, Koshin-san; I have had some food prepared."
The samurai lowered his eyes at the Phoenix, letting a smile slip through, "You do know me well. Come along, Ujirou-san; they have been waiting for us."
The modest shiro had served the sensei of the Shiba Ryu for several hundred years; now, it was the property of Shiba Dekai, the first assistant to the retired master Mori. Despite his deep, unknowable chi, Koshin could not help but trust and underestimate the Phoenix slightly; he had a smile that could almost fool even the wanderer's eyes.
As Ujirou stood in the center of one of the small sand gardens, his feet grounded wide, the two warriors stood in the shadows, watching the boy with approving eyes.
"He has a strong spirit," Dekai said after a moment, thinking that he could almost see the Daidoji's young, unfocused chi. "His focus leans too harshly towards Fire and Water…"
Koshin said nothing, so enthralled was he by Ujirou's stance. With no sword in his hand, the boy was training stance and focus; for most young people, such silent stoicism would have been torture, but the Daidoji was as silent and solid as the shiro's stone.
The Phoenix was still talking, and eventually Dekai's happy voice penetrated even the swordsman's thoughts. "Why does he not practice kata? A child of such readiness should not be wasting his time without a katana in his hands."
"It is called 'pure hand' training," the ronin replied simply. "The Mirumoto and Kakita both use a different method of it, but the result of the junsude training is the same either way. The student will lose his older habits and react on instinct instead of thought."
The Shiba nodded, "You wish him to be malleable, so he can accept your lessons better. You are a selfish teacher, Koshin-san, especially for one who has himself learned from so many."
Koshin smirked. "Teaching Ujirou how to be accepting of others will be my first lesson. Ironically, I have found that being open-minded is among the hardest lessons for many of us to learn. Too many samurai bind themselves blindly to easy truths."
The cool wind of the Phoenix provinces stirred Ujirou's long white hair, doing its best to buffet the boy's concentration. Dekai turned away from the ronin's student, "I hope that you are as good a fighter as you are a tutor."
"I await your challenge," Koshin said without thought.
"Of course," Dekai said with a bow, his short topknot bobbing in the move. As his head rose, however, the Phoenix's eyes were guilty and evasive, "But to be truthful, Koshin-san, I was only the one who wrote the letter…"
Those grey eyes met with Dekai's black orbs, just as the Phoenix finished his
words, "…Your challenge has been made by another of my clan."
The Challenge is Made…