Chapter Seven: A Debt of Honor
"Every day of his life a man has one judge, and that
judge is himself."
- The Tao of Shinsei
The letter had been folded carefully, pressed and turned over and over with a tender hand. The runner had come from Kosaten Shiro, a simple heimen paid with Dragon gold. That had been three days ago, and still the letter rested on the kyuden's awning, untouched and unopened.
Finally, when the time came when the samurai-ko was free for a few moments from the toil of her people, she returned to her room, running her hand again over the simple, pale white paper. With a gentle twist of her hand, the lady opened the paper.
Inside, written in elegant, simple words, were only a few words, finished by the beautiful artwork of a mon…a Crane, with two swords embraced upon its wings. The letter read:
I have heard of your good deeds on behalf of the Crane, and I know also that I owe you a debt, which must now be repaid. I shall come to your home in two weeks, in order to honor your courage.
Setting the letter back onto the awning, the woman looked out of the window for a long moment, her mind awash with the memories the name had brought with it. It had been many years ago, at another kyuden, during another war.
That had been more than thirty years ago.
This was now.
Folding her hands, the lady called for her servant. When the girl had come she spoke softly to her, never leaving her place beside the window, "There is a samurai coming; a kinsman, who calls himself Kakita Koshin…"
There were a hundred different possibilities to use if she wished not to see her guest, each strategy tested and true in the way of the Crane throughout their history. Part of her yearned to select one, and avoid the confrontation. But Kaori would not deny this samurai, whoever it was.
"When he arrives, in less than two weeks time, see that the house is prepared, and that he is welcomed properly as a brother of our family."
Kaori had lived through too many lies and betrayals, seen too many friends and loves die. Whoever this man was, she would find out the truth. She knew who he most likely was; a liar, seeking to live on another's name. Perhaps another Shadow, living on in his body like a ghost that does not know it is dead.
And yet, as the middle-aged woman watched the sun slip slowly away, she considered a letter written thirty years ago to her, with a simple, elegant hand…
For his part, Koshin could not tell himself why he had returned.
The lands of the Crane were less fertile now, their beauty choked by the Kumo's wrath. As the Crane came from the west, he could see the peasants, toiling in dry fields, working their hardest to bring life back to the land. Though he had never done so before, the ronin stopped and spoke with them, despite the time it took from his quest of the blade.
It was a small step, devoting a few hours to speak to heimen carrying mud from one of the nearest rivers to replenish the salted rice fields, but it removed a slight bit of the guilt. These were not the rich lands he had grown up in. So much had changed. After accepting their thanks, the samurai continued on his way, the tiny kyuden rising in the distance.
Here was the home of Kakita Kaori, or so the peasants had told the wanderer. As Koshin approached the gates, he saw a pair of Daidoji guardsmen standing ready at the open gate. Wearily, as he had done many times, the samurai prepared to show his papers, now well worn from the rough journey.
"I am Kakita Koshin," he began, hoping that they would not take as an insult his rent sleeve and faded clothes. "I am here to see Lady Kaori; I am told that this is her home."
The Daidoji nodded, "Enter freely and a servant will be called. Our lady has been expecting you."
Despite the supposed warm tidings, and the proof that his letter had arrived, Koshin did not feel relieved as the Daidoji called a servant to lead him inside. Somehow the duelist felt a dread as he entered this place; the fear that always came with remembering the past.
As he was led to the house, Koshin noticed for the first time how spartan the samurai dwelling was, how simple. Though it was clean as could be, and elegant, the riches that he had remembered of the Crane were gone; sold, he imagined, to feed a starving people.
In Koshin's eyes, it was the best exchange that could have been made.
Eventually, the ronin was told that the lady was out seeing to her people, and that she would not return until late in the evening. Leaving his swords upon the edge of the doors, the samurai was permitted to enter the castle, to enjoy himself and wait for the lady to return.
For Koshin, the day became a test of his will, with each moment drawing him closer to a meeting that he knew not how to fight.
Kaori had helped him, saved him, most likely. He owed her a great deal, just as he owed her brother Toshiki, and Nikkan. They were debts that had to be seen to, and yet as he sat in silent meditation, the samurai's mind was filled only with the time he was losing, on his steps away from the perfection of the blade.
Still, when the sun fell from the sky, and the sound of returning ponies crept into the palace walls, Koshin remained where he waited, leaning in the awning as if relaxing, his mind straining with possibilities. The moments strained before him, and at last, the door slid open slowly, revealing a woman the man had come so far to repay.
Kaori stood in the doorway, dressed in a fine kimono of pale blue and grey. Her face had lost the youth that Koshin remembered so well, and bore upon its left side a long, slender scar. Her eyes, though still the blue of his memories, were dull and sad, and as she entered, with a limp, the man could not help but feel the pain that she had lived through.
Pain that he had not been able to bear with her…with any of them.
For Kaori's part, the kenshinzen said nothing. After bowing, she waved her servant and the guards away, taking a seat slowly upon the floor before Koshin. That face, still beautiful though brushed by war and time, was unfathomable, and for a moment it seemed that neither one could find the words.
"I…I must thank you for your hospitality, Kaori-sama." Koshin's tongue stumbled over the words, as if he could not speak in her presence. "I know that this is most unexpected, however…"
The woman bowed again. "You are always welcome here, Koshin-san…you will understand, I hope, but I am tired from the day, and I came only to welcome you, before I retire." Indeed she was speaking truthfully; the lines beneath Kaori's eyes were heavy, and her whole posture spoke of exhaustion.
Rising, the samurai bowed, feeling his face flush. "I am sorry for troubling you, Kaori-san…but you do believe me, when I say that I am Kakita Koshin?"
The kenshinzen rose, slowly so as not to twist her leg, and smiled, her words still guarded as she stepped out of the room. "Some stories must wait for the dawn."
Like a flare of sunlight, the sword flashed from its sheath, cutting through the air with near silence. In his room, Koshin practiced the draws again and again, his eyes looking hard, his muscles tingling, each searching for the weaknesses of technique in their own way.
"Nothing," Koshin said at last, his pale face dripping sweat from the effort. He could find nothing; it was not something physical, some trick of technique, that Akijin had referred to. Rather, there was some spirit missing in the draw or the cut, some motion that defied an adjustment of the blade.
Sliding the katana slowly back into its sheath, the samurai walked to the window, sliding the shutters open as moonlight filled the room. Breathing heavily from his work, the man studied the moon, again sensing the power that Hitomi's touch now brought to him.
"What are you trying to say to me, Hitomi?" he asked in a whisper. "What have I forgotten?"
The moonbeams did not answer, but from the darkness of the gardens below came the sound of a blade being drawn. For a moment, Koshin tensed where he stood, but soon the sword was sheathed, then drawn once more, in a smooth, practiced rhythm that the Crane knew well.
After all, the same clan had schooled them both.
Slipping down the hallway with soft steps, Koshin found his way into the gardens, at this time all shimmering with the dampness of the night. As he stood on the edge of the walkway, Koshin saw the form draw again and again, the blade always flickering, never making a sound.
Kaori moved with no limp now, as if the injury did not bother her at all. She was the dancer once more, the sword her song. Koshin realized for the first time how silent it was now when he drew.
The spirit was listless, bored. It no longer responded, did not leap to a command.
At length, her hands slowed, and the blade slipped away. Koshin remained silent where he stood, as the kenshinzen strode up the garden trail. When she saw him, Kaori smiled slightly, though her whole body grew tenser, "I hope that I have not disturbed you, Koshin-san."
The swordsman shook his head, watching the wind catch hold of her long white hair. "Your skill has improved greatly since we last met. It is inspiring." Then there fell a moment of silence between the two, as Kaori studied the seemingly youthful man as he watched the moon with shining eyes.
"You know, at the time…I don't think that either of us really understood its importance…"
Kaori looked up at the moon, considering the beauty of the silver orb. "The importance of what?"
"The importance of life," Koshin breathed sadly. "And the true meaning of honor."
Standing there in the moonlight, their forms washed free of color and contrast, the two samurai did not turn, did not face one another as moonlight flooded the earth from the sky. Each one, for a single moment, considered the beauty of the night.
At length, Koshin leaned back against the walkway's edge, "I never really see its beauty anymore…I suppose that it brings back too many memories…"
The kenshinzen turned her face away. "Then I pity you, Koshin-san. As much as I did before."
"Why, Lady Kaori-san?"
Kaori turned back, "If you are the man I once knew, you have lived thirty years, and have not aged a day. And yet, for all that time, all the opportunities and joys and lessons and griefs that you could have swept up into your soul in those years are missing. I feel pity to think of how much longer you may live, and still have such utter poverty."
"What would you have me do?" Koshin asked, feeling oddly ashamed of the tear on his sleeve and his faded kimono.
Kaori smiled, "Live, truly live, each moment, Koshin-san. It is all that we have."
He stopped and turned to face her, recognizing for the first time the truth behind her words. Where Kaori had been weary, now her eyes were bright and strong. He had pitied her at first, seeing only the scars left by toil and time. Now, Koshin would have traded anything for the truths and honor buried in those cuts and lines.
Each wound was a symbol of a piece of life lived.
"I will, Kaori," he said softly. "I swear it."