Chapter Forty-Eight: Reunion
"Some paths cannot be told, only walked."
The pain was always the first thing you were aware of, Koshin considered as his eyes flickered open; a Hida had once told him it was a reminder that he was alive. That Hida had been crushed by an oni the following week, he also remembered, and told himself to steel himself and be pleased to still be in some sort of pain. The eternal bliss of Yomi might await him, but somehow Koshin felt better, simply not being housed in Toshigoku's endless fields.
Outside, the air was thick with the gentle chill of midnight, and the sound of night's insects filled the damp air. The swordsman rose and donned his kimono and obi quickly, taking a moment to inspect the condition of his swords.
Perfect and cleaned with fresh choji, he told himself with a smile, kneeling next to Ujirou and patting the sleeping boy's head. The Daidoji shifted in his sleep, but did not awaken, leaving the sensei to step out into the moonlight alone.
He had not gone more than three steps when Koshin sensed her presence, sitting in the shadows, ten feet away. The edge of the simple, half-fallen hut did much to conceal Kenshuko's form in the darkness, but darkness was no longer so a barrier against the swordsman's eyes.
The ronin did not need to guess to know why she was here.
"He said that you would wake before the night was over," the girl said quietly as she rose from her place, returning her crimson katana to its proper place at her side. Kenshuko's face was now deeply tanned and ruddy, and behind loose hair there was determination in her eyes. "I have searched for you for a long time, Futai…Koshin…father."
"Not here," he said in a whisper as he drew the door closed behind him, offering a glance towards the nearby trees. The girl made no motion of complaint or agreement, but when the ronin started away, he felt her close behind.
Once the two of them had trudged a few yards into the bamboo thicket, Koshin turned to face Kenshuko, feeling all kinds of emotion warring inside. Nikkan had done his best to prepare him for this, and he had always known that Toshiki had been right, and that this day would come. He would not squirm, or beg for her forgiveness; Koshin would fight for her, as he always had for what he wanted to have.
"I wondered if Nikkan would tell you the truth someday. He always had the strength in him that I did not."
Her eyes were cold and angry, but her heart seemed pained and sad. "Master Nikkan did not tell me, father. Toshiki-sama brought the truth to me, where both of you were too afraid. I have spent my whole life trying to life up to what my mother told me about you…for her, and for myself. Now…draw your sword."
Koshin's eyes did not show any sign of shock or worry; they were too used to hearing such words. The night air seemed suddenly to grow fiercer, beads of sweat forming on his ready hands. Kenshuko took her own stance without hesitation, Akuraikaze shining and willing to serve.
Her stance was flawed and impatient; she had a lack of composure that Koshin could see behind her shoulders and her hands. Kenshuko represented the type of warrior that Koshin could have killed without thinking; a samurai unfocused and doubtful, more worried about the future than the duel.
You will not strike, he told himself adamantly. You will not fight.
Mastery, Koshin had told Satsukiru, was meaningless if he sacrificed his soul. At that moment, the ronin allowed his mind to fill up with feelings long forgotten; images of Taehime, his sisters and his parents…anything to distract him from the moment of the strike.
"I am ready," he lied. Koshin had always thought that when this time had come his heart would have filled up with words of praise and forgiveness, but the only words that he found remained deep within his soul as Akuraikaze blossomed into the light.
I wish that I had told you how proud I was of you, daughter…
The strike was not filled with excellence or focus; it was not born from a heart that was dedicated, or even from a moment wholly seized by anger or hate. Kenshuko was attacking with determination and jumbled emotions, her strength surging from the moment alone. Akuraikaze slashed out from her hip with a loud, jerky motion, rising towards her enemy, the blade roaring through the air.
Koshin held his eyes open until the final moment, where the katana slashed abruptly upward, opening a narrow wound along the side of the wanderer's hair. Those grey eyes widened in shock at Kenshuko cried out in anguish, turning her katana immediately, slamming it into the ground. The samurai-ko followed her weapon a moment later, crashing to her knees with frustration filling her words.
"I can't…" she whispered, her thin shoulders quivering as her hands gripped the sword.
Dropping to one knee before her, Koshin reached forward unsteadily, feeling the blood as it ran down the side of his face. Kenshuko looked up with eyes filled up with tears of failure, for the first time fully meeting his father's eyes. Reflected in them, Koshin saw the emotions that had driven him to everything that he had accomplished: pain, disappointment, and defeat.
He did not know why, but at that moment, his arms reached out to hold his child, feeling a need to dare and draw her near. Kenshuko did not fight against the motion, letting Akuraikaze fall as she was pressed tightly in her father's shoulder. The man's voice was resigned and tender, letting go of the duelist's eternal control.
"You do not need to waste your tears on me, Kenshuko," he whispered to her, "My flaws and cowardice are worthy targets for your hate."
"I don't hate you…" she choked through a face smothered in Koshin's kimono. "This has nothing to do with hate…"
The shove was so sudden, so unexpected, that it almost threw Koshin to the ground. Kenshuko's hands whipped into motion, the right hand seizing hold of her wakizashi, and the left tugging her obi free, "This has to do with duty. I cannot kill you…I am not that strong. But I will not fail my family without paying the proper price, father…I will not become the same continuing failure that you are."
Koshin closed his eyes to the insult, feeling the self-deprecation that drove the heated words. "You can not pay for whatever sins I have committed; they are mine to atone for."
Kenshuko pressed the wakizashi against her stomach, feeling the cold edge of steel, "I have my own sin to repent for, father; one that goes against the purpose of our clan." She opened her eyes one last time, feeling blood begin to flow. "I promised that I would not fail…"
His hand gripped the steel of the shortsword, pulling it slowly, subtlety away.
"I have no right to try and change your decision; you are a samurai," Koshin told her, his hand opening, the blood mingling with hers, "but I will not stand by and watch my daughter die. I failed your mother every day until she died, Kenshuko…I will not fail her now."
The samurai-ko was frozen in her action, his words burning her to the soul.
"If I did that, Kenshuko, then I would have truly failed. It was all that I could offer the Crane; my love and my future in your mother…in you." the sound of dripping blood permeated each word that was spoken, giving each one deep and echoing tone, "and I know it was more than enough."
Slowly, like the tears that passed between them, the wakizashi slid to the ground…
Two days later, Kenshuko found the strength to speak to him again.
"I am leaving."
Koshin said nothing from his place, sitting next to her watching Ujirou train, but the samurai-ko knew that her father seldom spoke with words. The man's posture shifted slightly, his grey eyes focusing on the handle of her blade. Beyond the shadow of the eve, his apprentice stopped his kata suddenly, somehow recognizing the subtle shift in his observers.
"I have learned more about you than I ever thought I would," the girl continued, her eyes tensed to guard against the tears they hid behind, "and I think that I am starting to understand."
His eyes were lowered; a sure sign that he was unsure. "I thought that you were a failure to what the Kakita stand for…but I was wrong. I am going to go and ask Master Nikkan for answers; I lack conviction in my path…"
"You know that even Nikkan can not give you all of the answers."
She knew what he was saying; it was the same thing Masurao had said. What Kenshuko would choose to believe; about herself, or about her father, was not something that someone else could say. "I began this journey for myself; now I must see it to the end. I will have my answer for you when we meet again…father. We will finish our duel then…"
"One way…or the other," she said with one hand upon Akuraikaze, "I will not fail again."
Koshin's eyes closed as she faced him, turning away from the bitterness in her words.
With that, the samurai-ko strode out into the sunlight, meeting the young Daidoji in the yard. Kenshuko's tall form rested directly in the sunlight, making Ujirou squint to see her face, "And you, Daidoji Ujirou…you I will remember every time I bathe."
The boy felt his face shift at least two colors toward crimson, but managed not to turn away, "I will not forget you, Kenshuko-sama…"
The girl gripped the top of her kimono, tugging at its edges with a proud smile, "I should hope not, Ujirou." Then, against all formality and principle, the girl knelt and embraced the small boy, her voice a somber whisper in his ear.
"I am quite jealous of you, Daidoji Ujirou…I hope that you appreciate what he has to give."
An hour later, the sensei called out to his student, his kimono now brushed and cleaned and his swords tucked to his side. Ujirou came dashing over immediately, the sweat of the last few hours still shining on his pale face.
"We are leaving," the master said simply, his eyes concentrated on a slender piece of folded paper. Ujirou bowed and hurried off immediately, quickly gathering up his few articles by the shack's slanted door. "Did Kutsu-sama say why he left, Koshin-sensei? I wanted to thank him for his help…"
Koshin crumpled up the note in silence, shaking his head as he did, "I no longer try to understand people, Ujirou…I simply accept them as they are." He hesitated for a moment before continuing, "You will have your chance to thank Kutsu for his help, Ujirou."
"But not today," he said, his eyes drifting to the sky.
In the silence that the samurai left behind them, the crumpled paper opened to the empty air. Shadows crept towards it in silence, the sign of evening and the setting of the sun.
The last time that I demanded an encounter, it was at your decision that I stayed my hand. Now, however, I see that you have taken a student, and earned a responsibility that I have no right to destroy.
Use your time well to train Daidoji Ujirou; I will await you when you have taught him that which he needs to know. Come to the steps of the mountains to the west of Heibeisu in the Lands of the Dragon Clan. I am ready for your challenge when he has begun to understand.