Chapter Four: The Way of Deception
"We see the truth…but a Scorpion never shares his
There were whispers in the lands of the Scorpion…always whispers, dancing on the wind. They laughed, they mocked, and with them came words to the wanderer's ears. The wind whispered to him, come with words of "war" and "death." Koshin never considered himself a true ronin, nor listened carefully to the peasantry along his way, but even his ears caught these words, passed by eta and heimen through the empty lands.
War was coming.
The Emperor was dead, and war shone in the eyes of his children.
Sitting in the darkness on his cot in a dirty little bordering house, the samurai was silent with his thoughts. Rokugan would bleed again, it seemed. It would be the fourth time in his life that the world had been torn apart. Koshin had been weaned on blood, on panic and pain.
He had seen a world consumed by pride.
Now, in the darkness, with only the whispers of the wind and his two guiding spirits, the duelist rolled himself on the rough cot, facing the wall and closing his eyes to the world in an attempt to hide his tears, "Perhaps they are fighting for a world…"
"…That is not worth saving."
"I am looking to test my skills against one of your school's most skilled," the ronin said with a calm, trained voice. He sounded and looked like a Crane, but the fact that he wore two katana made the Scorpion guard doubt his own intuition, if only a bit. Beneath his mask, the samurai simply smiled.
"Our sensei is otherwise engaged; he has no time for you today, ronin." The voice was inscrutable, and the samurai would have expected nothing less from the Clan of Secrets. Of all the defenses of Kyuden Bayushi, these two samurai were surely the least of them all.
Koshin nodded, wondering who else watched him, even now, "Then I will return tomorrow."
Turning on his heel and walking back down the long, winding road that led to the mighty Kyuden, Koshin could hardly contain his anger. For over a week, the same words, from the same mouth. He had nothing to fight back with here, and more importantly, he was learning nothing.
It was a complication the samurai had not anticipated.
Isaiso's face lingered with him now, and Koshin remembered clearly to price of his inability. He had come this far to risk everything, in order to learn to "see" again. The Scorpion were going to be disappointed, if they expected to see him sent away empty-handed.
It was then, when he was deep in his own troubled thoughts, that he first noticed the bushi standing in the road before him. Dressed in the red and black of the Scorpion, the girl was perhaps a year or two his younger in appearance, though this was difficult to know with a swath of silk over her face. Wearing a cleanly elegant kimono and her swords with a delicate ease, Koshin thought at first that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Then he recalled that it had been thirty years since he had been free to consider such things, and laughed.
"What is so amusing, ronin?" Her voice was sharp and clipped, in the Scorpion accent, and carried with it a tinge of threat and disdain. "I was told you were a man of honor, but if you disrespect a fellow bushi in such a manner, then it must not be so."
Starting slightly at the challenge to his honor, Koshin bowed, "My apologizes, Bayushi-sama. My laughter is for myself, and I hope that you will accept my apology for any confusion." His hands were edgy, nervous, as if there was something in this bushi to be feared.
In the past, his instincts had seldom been wrong.
"My name is Bayushi Anukeiko, ronin, and I have heard that you are seeking a chance to face the Bayushi style." Her feet moved lightly, barely brushing away the loose dirt of the road.
Koshin nodded, "I am indeed, Anukeiko-sama. I had hoped to challenge your sensei, but it seems that he is too busy to see me."
The Scorpion girl nodded back at him, her tight eyes taking in everything about the tall, slender man. "I am not a master," she said, gauging his reaction, "but if you wish to see the style of my family, then I would be pleased to give you a match."
Though her voice was still respectful, this was definitely a challenge.
Again, the ronin merely nodded, his face quiet, his soul seemingly calm. "I would be honored to learn from you, Anukeiko." Turning to follow the young Scorpion woman back towards the waiting dojo, Koshin felt the darkness of evening tightening around him, though in fact it was a bright, clear day.
The dojo was immaculate and bore a clean, simple threat to it, as everything in the elegant Kyuden did. At this time, there were no students present, which was surprising, considering how high the sun how risen. Arrayed along the wall was a rack of finely worked weapons, from bokken and katana to more unusually shaped weapons. Calmly and smoothly Anukeiko turned to face him, delight filling her eyes.
"Choose your weapon, ronin."
Koshin nodded to her, loosening both swords and then drawing out his first, held loosely and low in his left hand. The grip was smooth and sure, the weight more tested now, more expected. As he turned to face the girl, Anukeiko was removing from the wall a bizarre polearm, its end a multitude of spines and spikes.
Whirling the weapon elegantly, the Scorpion leveled the end of the sodegarami towards her opponent, "Are you prepared, ronin?"
His eyes filled up with the steel of combat, Koshin let the kasa fall to the floor to his side, his sword shining, "Hai, Anukeiko-san."
In truth, he was not.
The Scorpion came forward instantly with a speed that the Crane had not anticipated, thrusting through his left sleeve, tangling the torn cloth hopelessly and forcing Koshin backwards. Planting his feet, the Crane drew his second sword, bringing it down towards Anukeiko with a savage speed.
But the Scorpion was faster than his clumsy motion; impossibly she forced her weapon to the right, dragging Koshin with it, spoiling his strike. Stumbling, the ronin fought hard to keep his footing, especially when the girl swung, striking his back hard with the pole end of the sodegarami.
With a grunt, the ronin stumbled again, and the staff end cracked a second time against his tough side.
Desperation seized control, and Koshin left arm tore free of his entangled sleeve, thrusting across his body, aiming at the darting figure even as it moved away. The blades of her weapon rang against his own, and the Scorpion was free, a thin veil of sweat the only mark of combat.
Koshin's left arm bled from several small cuts, but he ignored it all as the fight began anew.
Now on the attack himself, Koshin fought hard, determined to make up for his poor, prolonged defense. The Scorpion girl was swift and skilled; she knew well how to use the weapon well, thrusting it forward, raking his forearms, keeping his blades from finding any real purchase.
"You are tired, perhaps," the girl taunted as she moved, "But you will be able to rest soon."
Moving across the floor of the dojo, Anukeiko struck again, tearing again his already ripped left sleeve of Koshin's kimono, forcing his arm high into the air. His right sword came again, but the sakaba caught against the upraised staff, leaving the taller man standing with arched back, and the smaller Scorpion smiling slightly beneath his face.
"I had expected more from you, but you are less than you appeared," her breath was hot, and there was a wisp of Unicorn perfume all around her. Koshin tensed, his muscles useless in such a position, his mind racing for some way out of the Scorpion's trap. "Our duel is finished."
Bringing the pole end down, Anukeiko knocked Koshin's right leg high, sending the Crane backwards. Koshin's body twisted in the air almost without thought, and he crouched low instead of falling, turning a half-circle as his foot connected to the dojo floor again. With his opponent behind him, the swordsman reacted without himself for the first time, his sword flashing backwards, shattering the sodegarami even as the Scorpion swung.
Anukeiko stumbled at last, her composure spoiled for a second, and the ronin moved.
Pivoting to the other side, Koshin raised his other blade, placing it firmly against Anukeiko's neck even as the Scorpion finished her defeated move. His face haggard from the contest, the ronin nodded, "Our duel is finished. Thank you, Anukeiko-sama."
She had nearly bested him, and even in defeat, the Scorpion was little more than winded.
It had been at that last moment that Koshin had realized that he was fighting in her way, striking for her when her weapon would do. It was a step towards his old self, but it had come to him only on the brink of defeat.
Always on the edge of the sword.
"You are indeed skilled," Anukeiko said simply, watching Koshin sheath his blades in his strange, personal manner. "I am certain that my master will be willing to speak with you, ronin, when I have told you what you have done."
"This was a test," Koshin said as he lifted his left arm, examining the long cuts that the sodegarami had left behind. A test that had nearly defeated him.
The Bayushi smiled beneath her mask, venom on her tongue, "Of course it was, ronin. I will see that a servant shows you to your room."
Sitting in the darkness that night, Koshin was not comforted by Hitomi's fierce light as it tore open the skies. The samurai lay in silence within the halls of the Scorpion, and the prospect of the Bayushi master remained in the corner of his mind.
He had barely defeated Anukeiko; what right did he have to challenge her sensei?
Was there even a chance of becoming what he was, when so much was gone?
Rising in the darkness, the samurai began to work at the forms of mizu-do, concentrating on his body in an attempt to silence his worried thoughts. Despite all this, Koshin continued to analyze and search, and in the midst of the night, the samurai remained alone.
The Scorpion were crafty; they fought with their keen intellect and wisdom, rather than mere speed of technique or strength of arm. Koshin had let his mind be silent until the end of the fight, and it had almost cost him the day. Koshin was, day by day, recovering strength and spirit.
Now he would work to recover his thoughts, to remember how to simply react, and when to judge in the midst of combat.
"I will be watching you, sensei," the samurai whispered to the
darkness with a grim smile, laying down again at last, his body tired and
wanting for sleep. "I will find the tail."
The Challenge Awaits…