Chapter Fifty: Old Debts
"A true samurai has only one judge of his honor, and that
"This city is not very interesting, is it Ujirou?" Koshin asked as the two bushi walked quietly through the middle of the small Lion village. Ringed with large rice fields and overflowing with busy heimen, Foshi was great for tranquility…though for that, Koshin considered, he would have preferred to stay in the woods.
The boy smiled at his sensei, looking the village up and down, "It's nice to be around people again, even if they are boring."
Koshin nodded, tucking one hand into his kimono, "You make a good point, Ujirou; let us find an inn and enjoy this for tonight. You have trained hard for the last few days, after all." The wanderer stopped in his tracks suddenly, a confused expression filling his face.
"Koshin-sensei?" Ujirou said from beside his sensei, knowing that intense gaze.
"Kakita Koshin," snapped a fierce voice from behind the two of them, "Surrender yourself in the Emperor's name!"
The two men turned to be confronted with a sight neither was happy to see. Six golden-clad samurai stood in a half-circle behind them, all bearing katana and jitte, and half with their swords already drawn. Standing in the center of the men was a tall woman warrior, her narrow eyes silently burning beneath the bangs of close-cropped black hair.
"You are captured, criminal!" cried one of the Lion, seizing the initiative and lunging with his sword. Ujirou reached for his katana like lightning, but another warrior moved even swifter than the boy.
Like a whirlstorm, the female Lion had seized hold of her sheathed katana and struck, the golden saya whipping through the air. There was a resounding smash and a cry as the woman's weapon struck her kinsman squarely in the back of his neck, sending the big samurai smashing to the ground.
She is good, Koshin thought as the man began to crumple. Very good.
As the Lion hit the ground the ronin calmly stepped to one side to avoid him, his hands nowhere near his sword. Ujirou watched as the Lion girl stepped forward still holding her katana easily, then she whirled it neatly and returned it to its proper place.
At closer inspection, the Lion girl was pretty, but too sharp to be called a great beauty with her cropped hair and large, narrow nose. Dressed in fine armor and a golden mantle, the girl bowed to Koshin slightly, drawing back to better adjust her sword. "You will forgive Hisho for his…zeal, Koshin-san."
"I would say that he paid the price for it," the wanderer said with a glance at the unconscious bushi, "Who are you?"
"I am Matsu Yoshinoko," she said quite cordially, "and you are under arrest…for the murder of Ikoma Makuto."
Koshin glanced at the remaining Lion with the gaze of a veteran warrior; they were good, competent soldiers, but their style was built for the battlefield, not the duel. Beside him Ujirou was tense and quiet, more than ready fight with ready swords. The boy had been raised knowing all the negatives and dangers of facing the Lion; he would fight like a demon, and embarrass them if he won.
And then there was Yoshinoko…whose stance held an intriguing amount of skill. The woman composed herself with a manner of calm unusual in a Matsu, and Koshin knew that few people could perform the Crossways Cut.
"Ujirou," Koshin said calmly, his hands drifting to his swords. Yoshinoko met his eyes evenly, her gaze completely calm and focused as her enemy considered his blades.
The Daidoji's eyes were pinched tight and ready, already gauging opponents for the fight. "Sensei?"
"Take my money and find a place to stay in the city," he said with a small smile, "I will return when this is done." Before the boy could say a word, his master had filled his hands with a small pouch of money, and followed the Lion deeper into the town…
Ikoma Miyaka was a short, broad-faced magistrate, his kimono well pressed and his daisho perfectly balanced and cleaned. Too well cleaned to have seen much use, Koshin considered idly, as the Lion samurai continued to prattle on about the charge. Matsu Yoshinoko leaned in the shadow of a doorway behind the Ikoma, her proud face straining not to appear bored.
The ronin shifted his hands in his bound position, wishing they had not forced him to his knees.
"…you will answer for the murder of Ikoma Makuto, ronin!" Miyaka finished with a flourish worthy of a Kakita play, slamming his hand to the ground. The inside of the small magistrate's house shuddered at the sound, but Koshin merely shifted his uncomfortable shoulders.
"Makuto's 'murder' was a duel that he initiated, Miyaka-sama," the swordsman said calmly, "I killed him in self defense…"
Miyaka's long mouth turned a snarl, a few beads of sweat appearing on his shaven pate. Rising from his place on the floor, the magistrate hissed, "You expect me to accept the words of a wandering vagabond over that of a respected member of the Phoenix Clan?"
"Phoenix Clan?" Koshin felt his heart sink, "What do you mean?"
"This letter is from Isawa Bengaku," the Ikoma explained with a triumphant grin. Waving the paper like a weapon the magistrate advanced upon his prisoner, "There is nothing to discuss here, ronin! Your words are nothing to me!"
Bengaku…I should have known. A thought of the shugenja's superior smile crept back into Koshin's memory, and suddenly Koshin was quite curious to know how much the ishiken had written.
The ronin tensed his muscles angrily, "I have nothing but respect for you magistrate…but do not ignore a samurai's words." Surprisingly, Miyaka relented, allowing his captive to continue on. "Ikoma Makuto pursued me…for a duel to avenge his lord Isaido. He ambushed and challenged me in Higi Province, and I killed him there."
"No murder. A duel."
Koshin's eyes met with Yoshinoko behind the magistrate; the Matsu showed no hint of any contempt or concern. As afternoon sunlight started to stream through the narrow windows beside him the Ikoma rose with a quiet frown, his eyes still furious within their poise. There was nothing in the face of the Ikoma that made Koshin confident about his future; the Crane knew how easily it was to be ruled by hate.
"See that the prisoner does not escape, Yoshinoko; he will know his fate at dawn."
The Matsu bowed to her superior as he rose and tucked away his letters, then walked over to help the bound bushi rise. Koshin did not need any assistance, but just the same he appreciated it as he calmly stood. "You are rather relaxed about the situation."
Yoshinoko smiled, "You don't seem the type to try and escape." With her free hand now on the end of her katana, the Matsu extended her free hand down the corridor, letting Koshin lead the way to the wooden cell in the rear. "You might have taught Miyaka a lesson in humility and awareness, but you would never choose to run."
"You were counting on my honor, then?"
"Don't flatter yourself; I don't doubt that you are a formidable warrior, but without swords, with your arms bound behind you, I could deal with you with ease." Reaching the end of the corridor, the girl drew the heavy door open easily, her face filling up with another predatory smile.
The ronin stepped inside, his eyes staying with hers as Yoshinoko shut and locked the door. "I believe you. From the moment we met, I knew how strong you were." Turning to pace the small room once over, the ronin asked her, "What do you think my chances are for justice, Matsu-san?"
Yoshinoko's footsteps echoed down the hallway, "Ikoma Makuto was a Miyaka's cousin, and both of them served the same lord at one time. Despite his personal feelings, however, he is an honorable man. One way or another, ronin, all of us find a place to die."
Koshin smiled at the remark idly, leaning back to consider his bonds…
"Shouldn't you be in the cell?"
Koshin lifted his head with a yawn, turning to look back at the interior of the empty cell. Ruined ropes lay in a coil just inside the bars, and moonlight streamed in through a newly made hole pulled open in the low roof. "I took a moment to explain the situation to my student, Yoshinoko-san. Like you said, I am not the type of man to flee."
The Matsu was still dressed in her mantle and armor, despite the fact that the sun was yet to rise. Yoshinoko sheathed her katana with a disparaging glance towards the resting ronin, reminding herself to have a word with the guards.
"I suppose that you are not too concerned with Miyaka-sama, if you didn't run away."
"I do not like to run from a challenge," Koshin said from his seat, wondering if his eyes continued to glow. "Especially when my cause is just." He fell silent at the sound of his proclamation, remembering Makuto saying something much the same.
Yoshinoko leaned back against the far wall of the magistrate's barracks, "So why is a man of your skill wandering about the Empire? I know that my clan could appreciate a man like you."
A few threads of hair hid the ronin's eyes, but the smile in his voice could not be denied. "First tell me why a master of the Matsu family's Shishimai techniques is serving as a yojimbo to a magistrate in such a small and insignificant town…I have seen many swordsmen from your clan, but only one other that fought at your level."
"Sad stories aren't meant to be told before a fight."
Koshin frowned, "A fight?"
Yoshinoko nodded, standing straight up and narrowing her eyes. Turning to her side, the Matsu kicked open a large wooden box with a simple motion, revealing Koshin's weapons carefully arranged beneath the lid. "In the eyes of Ikoma Miyaka, you are still a murderer and a threat; a man whose words are a constant slander to his family and our clan…but I did convince him to let me settle this in my own way."
"You seem to be a man who enjoys a challenge," she said as he quietly arranged his weapons, "this is how a samurai should die."
There were a hundred reasons not to do this; his was innocent of any wrongdoing, and he respected both the Lion and their skills. But here in the darkness that hung down before morning, as Yoshinoko removed her golden mantle and silently stared at him, none of those reasons formed into words.
Koshin took his stance and faced his opponent, a knowing gaze meeting her eyes.
"You are right, Yoshinoko-san…this is how a samurai should die."
The Battle Begins…