Chapter Five: The First Master
"Truth is the greatest lie of all."
It had started as a game to them; a simple amusement, in a time when amusement was something that there was little time for. Now, even in their own courts, the game was costing them. The Scorpion would not listen to the words with idle hands. It was time for the game to end, and in the only way that would bring them their due.
In the courts, revenge came in one way.
Upon the floor of the dojo, it would come in another.
The man's hands were weathered, rubbed rough by age and the rigors of the blade. Graceful fingers danced along the rack of weapons, playing out an oni's rapture with an eerie grace. The voice was tough, as if it too had been gnawed upon.
"So he has skill."
The girl's face revealed nothing as she bowed, but Anukeiko's voice fluttered slightly in her master's presence. "At times," the student responded.
Even before her slender frame, Bayushi Akijin was a thin creature, a skeleton of a man, his mask pure porcelain over an emancipated face. Despite his years, the sensei was far from broken, and his strength was unbending, his will absolute.
"At times," The old master hissed, his black eyes like obsidian. "What does that mean, student?"
Her temples flushed, "He did not seem a challenge, master…until the end…"
"You were deceived," the old swordsman spat with a laugh. "Tricked by a ronin…perhaps he is in fact an interesting man. Worthy of my attention." In the last seven years, three men before had been worthy of the old man's "attention."
All three were dead, struck down by his blade.
Silence lingered on the floor of the dojo, and all was dead, save for the subtle movements of the old man's black kimono. Anukeiko did not move, did not rise before her teacher. She was as motionless as the stone of the mountains, and her silence humbled death.
"Lord Yogiro thinks this man to threaten our power within the courts; now is not the time to appear weak…and so the ronin must die." Akijin smiled sharply, but his student saw only the mask. "Summon the guards, student."
Anukeiko rose, her hesitation showing only for a second. Again, the old master laughed.
"You think that I am so afraid, to have him murdered? No, stupid girl, I need only for the guards to lead him to his grave…" His voice was so harsh that she retreated, moving quickly to the dojo doors where the guards could be called.
The last words she heard before the doors slid shut were, "…I shall push him in myself."
"Do you fear me?" The voice was raspy, and it lingered in the empty gardens as the sensei walked beside the ronin. Koshin nodded, his eyes watching the master, sensing his inner power, hidden deep within himself.
Akijin nodded, "Fear is a weakness."
Koshin looked past the mask as best he could, into those black night eyes. "Fear is a weakness only when it cannot be controlled or overcome. All men fear…even samurai."
The Scorpion's black kimono swished along the stones of the garden, and the sensei nodded slightly. The younger man was strong and sure, but he was not yet ready for this; the master knew that already.
He would die in a moment.
Finally, after more discussion of politics and honor, the Scorpion led the Crane to an open area in the large expanse, where the shallow, silent pools were their only observers. Akijin turned to put his back to the waters, his skeletal hands resting at last on the blade of his ancestors.
"No more lessons, ronin…"
Koshin stopped cold, a piece of sweat betraying him. Then the slender face grew grim and determined, and like a vigilant hawk those grey eyes fell upon the Scorpion master. Akijin could feel the ronin preparing, and already he knew he would fail.
Here, in the place of his choosing, with the sunlit water to his back, the Scorpion could have defeated anyone so foolish. Know the field, and be victorious.
Then Koshin let his hand fall, staring still into Akijin's eyes, "I cannot defeat you, Akijin-sama. I am not ready."
It was the only thing for which the master had not prepared.
Inside, Koshin's spirit warred with itself. He was not strong even to face this man; even now his senses reminded him that the man could destroy him with ease. It stung like a fresh wound, to again be shown that his own weakness.
And yet, he had seen that, and not thrown his life away. Through the feint of weakness and frailty, the samurai had found truth. It had been by only the slimmest margin, but he had seen it. In such a manner, Isaiso was somewhat avenged. It was a small victory, but Koshin had learned that from those things did mountains grow.
"You are a wise man," the old master said at last, his hand still readied over his blade.
It was then that Koshin turned to leave, his face still reddened by defeat, his eyes at last leaving the Scorpion's blade. As he did, the old man sighed softly and drew…
In half an instant, Koshin was turning, twisting impossibly as the Scorpion's blade fell. His right blade leapt out, not to counter, but simply to turn the attacker away. The sakaba rang loudly as Akijin's katana threw Koshin backwards, and the old sensei leveled the blade.
"I thought you were a man of honor," the ronin said with a grim face.
Akijin laughed harshly, the sword held high in both hands. "I am…even more than you could know."
Koshin did not understand, and the sensei afforded him no time for contemplation. Akijin moved like a striking snake, cutting at an angle with strength that defied his years. Koshin moved almost as quickly, his body leaping backwards, away from the terrible blade.
"Now who lacks honor?" Akijin asked softly, his blade raised once more. He was goading the younger man, and from the stiffening of the samurai's fingers on his swords, the effect had been achieved. "Are you still so afraid to die, little one?"
Koshin nodded, "I will give my life before I run away, Akijin-sama…"
The Scorpion bowed slightly, a motion that was genuine. Then he came, like a demon's own rage.
In the strike that would slice his head away, Koshin saw a hundred feints, a thousand clever tricks. The grip, the angle of the blade, and even the forearm muscles…all his senses had been betrayed.
His mind, however, was ready.
So the Crane bent backwards, moving in no direction save to be away from the blade. It was an act of desperation, a thought simply to avoid the killing cut. As he did, his hair rose above him from his quickness, and it was those few stray hairs that bore the cut of the Scorpion's blow.
Akijin passed his target smoothly, not hampered in the least by the missed stroke. The katana twisted and stabbed backwards swiftly, slicing deep into the ronin's arm even as he dodged away. Koshin stumbled as he leapt back into his stance, blood dripping from his right arm, his legs splashing water as he met with the shallow pool.
"I knew that you were Crane," the Scorpion said with a dark gaze.
Koshin smiled grimly, cold sweat covering his pale face, "I still am Crane."
Akijin rushed forward again, his attack as seemingly straight as an arrow's flight. Koshin turned his injured side towards the master, and as the blade descended, the Crane attacked, and the light of the sun flooded the dancing water, blinding the combatants in the midst of the strike. In that moment, as the blade passed and the light flared, Koshin smiled, the Scorpion saw the trap.
It was his own.
The moment of the strike was filled with light and sound, as Koshin sakaba flashed straight up, towards the heavens. The samurai felt Akijin's body tense and yield, throw backwards even as the master's own sword flashed by the Crane's side.
Even with the ground at his side, death had missed by only the wind's breath.
Even with the eyes of the master blinded, Koshin's stroke was barely enough.
Akijin fell hard onto the ground, his sword spinning away and his mask shattering. In an instant the Crane was upon him, both blunted blades pressed tightly against that slender throat, those grey eyes burning as the broken porcelain fell away.
Sunken eyes stared up at the swordsman, and blood ran freely from the Scorpion sensei's broken nose. The wrinkled face contorted in anger, then grew grim again, and as the swords relaxed, finally worked into a smile, "One moment of courage, Crane, and your fear is dead."
The twin blades twisted, drawing blood from the man's slender neck. Akijin nodded slightly, hatred still strong in his eyes, "Finish it." The Crane's blades shook for a moment. "Kill your fear."
Then, in another moment, they were lifted and taken away.
"I am no coward, and I will not be made one by you!" Koshin felt his anger making his hands shudder, stepping back without putting the blades away. Akijin stood, gripping his twisted face, and again Koshin leveled his swords. "I am not so afraid of my own fear that I would kill a man of your skill like this. You are beaten. There is no honor."
Akijin remained silent before the ronin, his hollow eyes watching the struggle within.
"I am strong enough to live with my fear, Akijin-sama…" The swords, clean once more, slipped away, leaving the two men standing weaponless in the empty Kyuden garden.
"I will not be afraid of my weakness."
The Scorpion rose, that grim smile still covering his blooded face. Akijin bowed, "You are a stronger man than I thought…but your technique is sloppy." There was something hidden beneath those simple words, and Koshin would almost have believed that the sensei was happy to have lost.
Finally, Akijin had found someone that had the potential to defeat the lie within himself. For the old Scorpion, such a thing was worthy of any wound, for such people were indeed rare.
Koshin returned the bow, his eyes not leaving his foe, "Thank you for the last lesson, Akijin-sama."
Finally, Koshin had seen through the deception, but the samurai knew better than to think that he had done more than glimpsed the truth.
Anukeiko wiped the blood from her sensei's face, and he sat silently as the wound was prepared for the healers. As she worked, her sensei watched through the southern window of his room, as the now distant form of the ronin wound its way back down the rock-covered road and around to the north, the way that he had come.
"Should I summon the Shosuro, sensei, and have them deal with the ronin? Surely this insult…"
Akijin smiled, despite the pain. "He is searching for nothing that Lord Yojiro will worry over. After all, we have no business in his truth."
Anukeiko bowed to her master's wisdom, as the window slid closed.
The Truth Beckons…