Chapter Eight: The Second Master
"Trust is the crucible of honor."
The next morning, as the sun spread through the cloudy skies over the small kyuden, Koshin sat in silence, chewing the rice he had been offered and watching as the sun rose. The lady of the house was not here to see him now; too many needs, wanting for aid.
Too many wounds for one hand to heal.
In the three days that he had now spent in the home of Kakita Kaori, Koshin was beginning to realize how meaningless his willingness to repay his debts was, even though his determination remained. He was nothing more than a ronin now; he had no money to buy her people food for their bellies, and not even a single man to aid them in their toils in the fields.
She did not need a swordsman, or a man who was going to fight on the field of war.
Killing was one of the only things that Koshin had ever been trained in, and certainly it was the best skill of all that he had honed.
Without those talents, he was merely a man.
Setting his swords aside in the corner, the samurai walked out into the morning light, letting the sun warm his face for a moment before he walked to the gate, where the two Daidoji stood. The two bowed to the duelist as he approached, but said nothing. Koshin scanned the horizon, "Where are the peasants working today?"
"Lady Kaori is not with the peasants, Koshin-sama. She has gone to speak with the delegation at Shiro sano Kakita for the day. If you wish to wait until evening…"
"I am only looking for where the peasants labor, Daidoji-san. That is all I need to know."
That evening, as the coolness of the night fell upon the dry, wasted fields, the horses finally came back to their master's homes, their heads hung low from the long, hot ride. Her face cooled by the coming darkness, Kaori relaxed slightly in her saddle, easing her steed along the empty road home.
As they neared the kyuden, the kenshinzen greeted the few weary peasants with a smile. Their faces were stained and soiled, but that did nothing to diminish their pride. As she stopped her small retinue and listened, Kaori heard a thank you for a deed she had not done.
"What samurai?" she asked one of the men, a tall, bland fellow that she knew as the village headman's second son.
The man smiled broadly, "The man came down from the castle this morning, Lady Kaori. He said that he was to help us, and worked very hard to do so. We knew that he was not used to our labor, but he learned fast. Thanks to his help, we should have the western fields ready in another week."
Kaori smiled slightly, bowing from her horse. "The help of each one of you is important to the Crane in this time of uncertainty. Go now and rest."
Moments later, as her horse was tended to and her guards retired for the night, Kaori walked into the simple home, her soft, loping step leaving a hollow echo on the empty hall. The moonlight slipped through the open garden doors, and the Crane stepped out once more into the moonlight, knowing already what waited there.
"Your honor is admirable," she said softly.
Koshin was sitting in the dry grass, his eyes nearly closed, as if sleeping. His voice seemed far away now, as if he, or she, was in a dream. "It was the only thing that I could do to begin to repay the debt that I owe to you…"
By his tone, Kaori could tell that Koshin would never consider such a small thing enough.
"I did what I did for you, all those years ago, because I wanted to help you, Koshin." Night swirled around the two samurai now, and with night came the fireflies, tiny candles in a world struck blind. "Now you have done the same for me, and the people that I protect."
The samurai rose from his place, his eyes shining in the moonlight, "You cannot consider this payment enough for what you have given me…"
But the woman smiled, "Only enemies are concerned with careful checks and balances. You owe me nothing more, Kakita Koshin. You are free of your debts. Now, you have no price to repay, not to me, and we are simple friends; nothing owed, nothing paid." Her voice was stronger now, more trusting, as if Kaori finally understood who the person before her truly was.
"You never asked what happened to me, Kaori…I know that you must have known doubts."
In the pale light of the moon, Kaori nodded, "How could I not?"
"Then why?" he asked, more confused now than ever. "Why did you trust me, here in your home?"
The fireflies' light flickered out. "I will not live in a way that brings regret." The Kenshinzen quoted The Sword, her inflection mild. "If I did not invite you, I would always wonder who it truly was who called on me. I would wonder why you sought me out. I would wonder what I would have said to you if you had come. I would have had no answers to my questions. And I would come to feel regret. Therefore, you are here."
"What did you wish to say? What questions did you have?"
A wet sparkle gleamed in the corner of Kaori's eye, but she kept her tone even. "I wanted to ask where you were, and why you abandoned us for so long. Where were you when our armies died at Volturnum, and our plains were drowned by the Kumo? Where were you at Beiden Pass, when the Scorpion betrayed us to Tsuneo and my husband died? The Crane gave you life, taught you her secrets, fed you with her strength, her passion, and her heritage. The Dragon taught you and called you to grow. I have learned more about you, Two-Sword Crane, since we last met. I sought answers, but by the time I was free, few were left alive to give them to me. I would have asked you, Koshin-san, whom did you serve, or if you truly follow musha shugo solely for yourself. Do you wear the humble guise of the Ronin, or are you Ronin in your soul? These are what I would have asked you."
"And yet you have not asked me."
"You carry the sakaba as your weapon, do you not?"
Koshin nodded slowly.
"The sword is the soul of the Samurai. You bear a half-blade, and are looking for the other half of your soul. You will not have answers for my questions until you are whole, I think. " She turned and slid open the shoji screen to enter her home again. "The sword is the soul of the Samurai, Koshin-san," she repeated, but as her voice faded behind the paper screen, he heard her say, "but the soul of the Samurai is not his sword."
Then she was gone, leaving Koshin alone in the emptiness of the night. The samurai was silent now, his form immobile beneath the strength of Kaori's words. Had he needed to fight, he could not have; that was the strength of her soul.
It was a strength he had forgotten, for so long now that he might have never known…
Finally, his eyes rose up to the heavens, seeing every fly-light, every delicate blossom, for the first time again. And above him shone the Moon, her silvery touch setting his body aflame with a thousand sensations that every child of man could know, had they taken the moment to seek.
"It is beautiful," Koshin whispered to himself, a tear touching his eye as he beheld the Celestial night.
And then, humbled and enlightened, the samurai bowed to the beauty of the world, honoring the wisdom of the Second Master.
Life is lived in the moment.
As Koshin rested in the darkness of his clean, simple room, the Kakita ran his slender fingers over the blade of his sakaba, the only sword that he had to claim as his own. It was a piece of steel and silk, not the soul that he was searching for.
It was a piece of what he wished to be, but nowhere near the whole.
Setting the blade aside, the samurai closed his eyes to the world, feeling the draw of the greatness of the Void. Like a wave it crested over him, and Koshin was happy that he could know such a thing again. To the fallen, it was the gift of remembrance, to again know.
It was another piece, nothing more, but a piece that reached out towards the whole. With a sadness that mingled with joy, Koshin released the Void, returning to the world before him, which shone still with the moon's light.
Finally, he remembered.
The road to excellence had not been his choice to better his fellows; it had been the link that brought him closer to the present, and the past. The road of the kenshinzen, the Swordmaster, could not be walked with mere strength of step, or firmness of footing. It was a path of faith, of inner power, and one that simple strength could never know.
That was why he followed it: to know the majesty of the journey, not simply the end.
"The Way of the Sword is to be walked alone," Koshin repeated with a smile, remembering the words that his father had told him, so long ago.
"But when you walk the path, your steps fill the footfalls of heroes, and so even then you are not alone."
The samurai drew, and the draw was imperfect, but for the first time he saw as he drew the blade. In the motion, Koshin saw at last his soul…
Twice I have come to you, and twice you have saved my soul. And now, a second time, I take my leave of you, as a thief goes in the night. But do not think that I am ungrateful, or that I am afraid.
You have questions that remain to be answered, Kaori.
As I am your friend, I must find the courage, and the wisdom, to find the answers within myself.
If I have lost thirty years, then I shall not regret them. Instead, I shall cherish the days to come even more. One day, I will have the answers that you wish to know.
Until then, I shall be listening to the whispers, Kaori-sama. If ever you need of me, do not think that I have forgotten my friendships. I will return.