Chapter Sixty: Final Requiem
"How long is a life?" the student asked the
Master. "One breath," was the reply.
- The True Tao
It was strange, how short and fleeting was that moment, when father and daughter once more locked each other in their eyes. Like a scene from some play Kenshuko felt a hundred emotions collide somewhere inside her, as her free hand fell to a tiny wound along her stomach, unconsciously reaching towards some elusive, phantom pain.
Say something, her mind snapped at her. Anything will do.
Then, without a single word or show of emotion, Koshin turned away from the eyes of his daughter, walking towards the inn with his usual, loping stride.
Ujirou blinked once in sudden confusion, then turned to dash to his sensei's side. "Koshin-sensei?" the boy asked loud enough for the group to hear him, his voice nervous and guarded. "Koshin-sensei, wait!"
The man did not even stop to give the boy an answer, as the two samurai stepped inside.
As soon as her father had vanished life seemed to re-enter the samurai-ko, who slashed both of the Dragon samurai with a wide and scathing gaze. "You tricked me! All of this…for that!" Despite her emotion, Kenshuko made no attempt to hide the tears that burned along her face, "I just cannot believe that you would…"
Words trailed off as the girl felt the brush of the grey cat on her leg as it tried in vain to soothe her sudden pain. "Damn you…" she hissed through clenched teeth. "I wasn't ready for this, Masurao…"
A hand touched her shoulder, and the Crane looked up to see a pained look upon the normally joyous Masurao, sadness heavy in his orange eyes. Behind the strange warrior-shugenja her sensei's eyes were silent and guarded, looking down onto his former student without a judgment or a word.
"This may be the last time for you to see him," the Mirumoto said, his voice suddenly very old and feeble. "If there is one thing that Koshin needs to be certain of, he has a right to know your answer now, Kenshuko. He needs to know that now."
This may be the last time for you to see him, the words galvanized her, causing the girl to straighten her kimono and swords. Turning towards the Togashi with a forced, almost painted smile, Kenshuko managed to hold a rein to her words.
"Please tell my father that I would like to see him shortly, Masurao-san. I need only a little time."
Daidoji Ujirou was upset. No…no, upset did not do justice to the kind of feelings that he had now. A deep sense of surprise and insult had welled up inside of him, the emotions just below the surface almost enough to make his small hands shake. No one told him anything! All those words that she had said to him, about being "jealous" of him and stuff like that…
Of course it all made sense to the boy now, after Nikkan had managed to catch him and explain with the help of the strange orange-eyed man. But even as he watched his sensei quietly preparing his attire for whatever Kenshuko was planning, the simple logistics of the matter still baffled his young mind.
So Ujirou sat in a huff in the silence of their small, comfortable room in the inn, trying to make something of the situation, heads or tails. The Daidoji boy was a little foggy on the principle of fathers; having had no one to speak of, the idea was at best idealized in his mind.
Then again, the fact that Kenshuko and Koshin-sensei looked more like siblings than father and daughter was yet another part of the mystery, and one that no matter how Nikkan had explained it, still tangled the boy's muddled thoughts.
"I suppose that I should have told you more about all of this a bit earlier," his sensei said over his shoulder, not bothering to face his student as he checked the edge of his first blade. The light from the small window shone off of Keiteki brightly, "Though I guess that everything has been told by now."
"How old are you, Koshin-sensei?"
The man's braid twisted slightly, even though he did not turn. "I believe that I am just past my fifty-eighth year, Ujirou-san." He was wise, and waited, allowing the weight of the numbers to sink in.
"You're older than my mother, Koshin-sensei!" He caught a withering look for that remark, one made more dangerous by the katana still shining by the ronin's side. Ujirou wisely chose to slip back a ways, toward the door of the room just in case. Old people always seemed to get angry when it came to the subject of age.
The next half-hour passed with many questions, all of which Koshin answered with a clear and steady voice. He told Ujirou many things about himself, even some things that he had never wished to tell again. All the while, they avoided one particular subject, until the young warrior could wait no more…
"Koshin-sensei, where did Kenshuko come from?"
For a moment, his sensei's back went incredibly rigid, as if he had been smashed by something cold and hard. Then the swordsman started laughing, turning to look at his confused apprentice with a blazing grin, "You mean, 'who was her mother,' I believe."
Ujirou nodded absently, still a bit too young to figure out exactly what else his sensei could have had in mind.
Koshin stopped smiling almost immediately, returning his eyes to the edge of Ukigumo's blade. "Her name was Taehime. She was nothing more than a geisha, Ujirou-san, but despite the dishonor I gave her my heart and my love." He hesitated, as if trying to decide whether to say something more…
"After I disappeared, the Crane reluctantly accepted her into my family…"
"…she died," he finished bluntly, quietly returning the blade.
Rising from his seat, the man looked little like a ronin, his kimono and hakama well washed and still, despite the road, amazingly clean. A crane shown on his sleeves adorned with tiny flowers, the whole thing a perfect melding of silver, black and grey. As he stood there, donning his weapons, the boy felt as if he could almost look back, seeing a long-dead version of the same powerful man.
"What are you going to do about Kenshuko, Koshin-sensei?"
"You have the rest of your life to have such worries," the man said, the seriousness in his voice not hiding the smile in his eyes. "For now, go and spend some time talking to the girls in the common room, Ujirou…but stay away from Nikkan."
"When it comes to affairs of the heart, Ujirou, that man knows even less than me."
He had only taken a step beyond the room when Masurao noticed him; the tattooed man was standing just to one side of the ronin, his colorful arms folded, and that blazing gaze flowing through those burning eyes. Koshin bowed to the son of Fire, who returned the motion without changing his gaze.
"I had hoped to cross paths with you again some day, Masurao-sama," he said softly, his hands slipping down to touch his swords. "Though I will admit that these circumstances have…changed things."
"There will be another time for you and I," the powerful master replied. "Both of us know that you and her must come first." There was something that the Togashi seemed on the verge of saying, but he relented, stepping aside to let the swordsman pass.
The ronin glanced at Masurao as he passed him, his smile replaced with a ready warrior's gaze. "There is something bigger coming…"
The warrior-shugenja nodded, a great depth and distance reflected through his eyes. As Koshin stood there in silence the Togashi moved from his place in the shadows to look out at the Kakita girl, wholly concentrating on her father and her sword.
"What would you say to her, Masurao-sama?"
For a moment, nothing more, the tattooed warrior was silent.
"It is not I who have been away her entire life, am not I the one she has never known, nor am I the one who has to speak to her," Masurao answered, a grim smile on his face.
"You are her father, Koshin-san; I can teach her many things, but not that. Listen to your heart, to your emotions and you will find the right words. She has little experience in controlling her emotions Koshin-san, I suggest you be careful with your words... Your tattoos did not take away the love for your daughter, the time you spent away from the world didn't change that either. It is hard to love someone you do not truly know, but she is of your blood."
Masurao shifted his gaze from Koshin to Kenshuko and continued, "Yet look at Kenshuko-chan, your daughter. She knows who you are, but is ready to face you in duel. Do you not wonder why? If there is anything that I've learned from the times I've spent with her, it is that she does not know her father: there is a man named Koshin. He looks like her father, and is supposed to be here father, but at the moment that is all you mean to her. I can not tell you what to do, but I ask... No, rather I beg of you not to fight her, it is not your destiny to kill her, or hers to kill you."
The two of them met one another just as the sun was setting into the thundering mountains, casting darkness in long, lancing shadows, creating a beautiful sea of fire as the western provinces smoldered and burned. Koshin took a moment to consider the twisting fires, but then turned away, facing his daughter, and the ghost of her mother directly in those haunting eyes.
In Kenshuko's hand, a small, grey cat was cradled, the only sound between them a contented, rumbling purr.
"Have you made your decision, Kenshuko-san?"
She knelt to let the cat leap to the ground between them, but even then the grateful creature continued to twist about both samurai's legs. As her eyes rose up to meet him, Koshin could see the same unchanging battle, which forever made a tragedy of every samurai's path. A yearning of the heart was matched with the sense of betrayal…
…If the girl was to make a decision, Koshin knew, she would make it here and now.
"I have." The Kakita girl's long hair trailed out in a long wave behind her, as her left hand settled on the sheath that sealed her blade. With a mirthless smile Kenshuko removed the weapon from her deep blue obi, whirling the blood-red weapon and slowly setting it aside.
"My father was a man who followed his heart and his honor, Koshin-san," she said, slowly and painfully, "he was a person to whom 'excellence' was not merely a word. I believe that my father truly followed the way of Kakita…in his path, and for his clan."
She closed her eyes, "I have seen the kind of strength that I was always told that my mother and sensei saw in my father in you, ronin…but my life is for my clan. I cannot give you any company save my love and my forgiveness; if you choose to remain a clanless vagabond, then you will walk that road alone."
Koshin bowed his head in silence, feeling pain burning his teary eyes. When he met with her once more, the girl continued, her own words carefully arranged and relentlessly forced.
"I will be returning to my lord to resume my duties as her vassal; it is a duty I have neglected for too long. Masurao-san has agreed to show me the swiftest paths back through the mountains and then home; I do not think that we will ever cross paths with one another again."
He nodded, knowing that even with the Togashi, her chance to escape seppuku was not assured, "I expect not." The swordsman's hand drifted to his obi, the callused fingers closing over a polished, artful sword, "Before you go, Kenshuko, I would like to ask you to perform one duty to the memory of your father…"
Placing the wakizashi into her hands firmly, Koshin released his grandfather's blade. "I have already given my life for my family's honor, Kenshuko-san…I have no more reason to carry the weight of this sword."
Kakita Kenshuko nodded to the ronin in silence, accepting the weapon and with it her great-grandfather's soul. Without a word, they parted as father and daughter, neither one turning back to take a final look at the other, the image of their passing already buried forever in their hearts.
On the plateau that looked down on Heibeisu, Kutsu sat with clasped hands. The monk opened himself up to the elements in silence, enjoying the peace of the empty Dragon lands. The silence was a welcome change to the roar of blood and battle; even if he desired it only temporarily, it was a thing that could balance his soul.
Then, the night was shattered by a familiar presence, and slowly the warrior opened his hardened, ready eyes. Rising from his place amidst the sand and stone the monk felt a tingling sense of elation as he turned to face his challenger, clenching his hands into fists of iron and steel.
"You…no," Kutsu said softly as he met the dark eyes of his challenger, "You are different…than him."
Goju Hitokan smiled beneath the mask that hit his face and familiar features,
reaching down to take Saishuuheiki into his hand. "You are right that I am
different than your nemesis, Kutsu-san," the newcomer said coldly, "I
will show you how."
One Path has Ended…