Lessons of Honor
It was a small village in the Lion lands, not too far from the border with the Crane, and there was little to distinguish it from any other small village anywhere. It had a noodle shop, a teahouse, a short street where merchants sold sandals, rolls of cloth, cooking pots, and other sundries; and a small temple to Shinsei. It was the temple, Ujirou thought, that had drawn his sensei here, but how this temple differed from the dozen or so that they had passed in the Crane lands was a mystery to the boy.
It was one of a series of mysteries that plagued him at the moment. He didn't know what to do, now that he had completed his morning exercises and his sensei was still meditating in the temple. He didn't know why his mother, a Daidoji who was descended from the first Daidoji, and through him from Lady Doji herself, had decided that a ronin, of all people, should teach her son swordsmanship. He didn't know why his new sensei's eyes glowed in the dark. Truthfully, he was fairly certain he didn't really want to know the reason for that.
But he couldn't help wondering if his mother knew about the eyes, and if she would have changed her mind if she had. He didn't know. It bothered him that he didn't know. He had known her all his life, and he had thought he understood her--and then she had removed him from the Daidoji school and sent him, not to the Kakita Academy, but to a ronin. Had he failed somehow? His Daidoji sensei had seemed to be pleased with his progress, but how could he really know? Or maybe she knew of some deeper flaw his teachers had missed? It made his stomach hurt sometimes, thinking about it
Ujirou closed his eyes and breathed deeply, willing the tension out of his bones. He was a Crane. The heart of a Crane was filled with excellence, not self-pity. He jumped to his feet and briskly headed down the street. Noodles were the answer. He would go and eat some noodles, and then, if his sensei was still meditating, he would join him. Koshin-sensei might be only a ronin, but he was Ujirou's teacher now and the boy was determined to learn all he could from him.
Some time later Ujirou sauntered through an alleyway back towards the temple,
well fed and pleased with himself. The counter at the noodle shop had been
watched by a girl his age, with shining black eyes and crooked teeth. As an
experiment he had smiled his widest smile at her, and she had giggled and looked
away from him. Then she had slipped a few pieces of
fresh, crisp age into the bowl with his noodles. When he left the shop he had noticed the girl again, this time huddled outside the shop with two other girls her age. He had waited until they looked in his direction and then smiled again, causing the first girl to hide behind her kimono sleeve, and the other two to giggle madly behind their hands. It was another mystery to solve, but this one didn't bother him the way the others did.
Coming out of the alley Ujirou found his path blocked by several large samurai. They were standing with their backs to the alley, attention caught by something going on in front of the teahouse. "Excuse me, samas," he said politely, edging carefully around them.
"No problem, I...," the shortest one said, turning around to look at him. Ujirou saw the carp and chrysanthemum at the same time the stranger saw the crane and yari, and was not surprised when the rest of the sentence died unfinished.
Once upon a time a younger Ujirou had thoughtlessly repeated some slanderous joke about the Crab, and had earned a reproving look and a stern lecture from his mother. The Crab, she had said, were a kindly people bearing a great burden, and he was not to mock them. But Ujirou knew, as all Daidoji knew, that such niceties did not apply to the Yasuki. The Yasuki knew it too.
"So, rich girl, what brings you to the tea house?" the Yasuki boy asked. He was looking Ujirou over as if he were a fishmonger looking over a new catch. "Are you looking for a friend?" He put a certain stress on 'friend'.
Ujirou kept his hand off his katana, barely. The Yasuki was bigger and slightly older than him, but after a glance at his footing Ujirou didn't think he'd be a problem if the matter came to a fight. The problem was the half-a-dozen Crab samurai who were with him, some of whom had turned to see what the commotion was. Backing down was, unfortunately, not an option. "So sorry, no, I am returning to my sensei. He is at the temple on the next block. Shall I introduce you to him, Crane-sama?"
The Yasuki's face flushed red and his hand dropped to his katana. "I am Yasuki Shoyo, son of Yasuki Shimei, a *Crab* samurai who has slain one ogre and uncountable numbers of bakemono."
Ujirou considered commenting on Shoyo's inability to count, but decided that was too easy. "I am Daidoji Ujirou, son of Daidoji Gisei, who fought the hordes of hell to defend our blessed ancestors at Oblivion's Gate." He kept his own hand off his katana, betting that he was faster than the Yasuki and knowing he'd need all the leverage he could get when his sensei found out about this. Not to mention any local magistrates.
Shoyo opened his mouth but whatever he was about to say was obliterated by a deep, mellow and unstoppable voice from the teahouse. "Gisei's son? Let me see Gisei's son." Shoyo's face twitched but he moved to the side, allowing Ujirou to look through the crowd. Sitting on the veranda were two Hida samurai engaged in a game of go. One of them was studying the board, white stone in hand, while the other was looking intently at Ujirou. "Come here," he said.
Ujirou walked forward obediently, compelled not so much by the words as by the man's deep, unknowable chi. The boy had never met anyone with the aura of power the Crab carried. The one Kenshinzen he had been privileged to meet had something similar, but where her aura danced and flickered like fire this man's flowed and surged like an ocean tide. When he reached a polite distance Ujirou bowed deeply. "Good morning, Crab-sama. I hope that Lord Sun finds you well today."
"Well enough," the man grunted. "Ujirou, right?"
"Hai, sama." Ujirou checked his urge to bow again. His mother had told him that Crab samurai disliked excessive formality.
"I'm Hida Nichiren."
Hida Nichiren. General of the Crab forces at the Battle of Gold Heron Lake, the Battle of Bitter Tears and a dozen others where he had out-fought, out-thought and out-maneuvered Shadowlands and Spirits alike. Ujirou stared at him for a moment, awestruck, and then he did bow again. "I am very honored to meet you, Hida-sama," he said reverently. "My mother has told me many stories about the battles you have fought."
"Really." Nichiren looked over at the go board, where the other man now placed his stone. After a moment the general picked up a black stone and set it down with a firm click. "She ever say how we met?"
"No, Hida-sama," Ujirou replied. In fact, she had never mentioned that she had met him. She had told him many stories about Crane heroes, but none about herself.
"This is how it happened. A while back we were still clearing out the area around Hiruma Castle, and we had some Daidoji ponies with us. One day we ran into more trouble than we planned for. We were expecting bakemono, and we got them. Somehow the scouts had missed the thirty-foot oni leading them. I'd called a retreat back to our barricades and everything was fine when we noticed a problem. One of the corpses we'd left behind wasn't a corpse yet, and he was trying to get back to us. Well, that attracted the oni's attention, so it stopped munching on dead samurai and headed on over. I'd just started a prayer to Hida on behalf of the poor bastard's soul when there was a horrible shriek from our side of the barricade and this Crane runs out."
Nichiren stopped to drink some tea, then looked around at his audience.
"You all know Cranes, right? Not one of them weighs more than a dai tsuchi
soaking wet in armor, right? So there's this Daidoji samurai-ko clutching a yari
this oni like she thought she could hurt it!" A rumble of amusement went through the men behind him, but Ujirou didn't notice. The samurai-ko was clearly his mother, and he was grappling (unsuccessfully) with the idea of her fighting a thirty-foot-tall oni.
"So, the oni sweeps a hand and knocks her over. Before she gets up it grabs her and is about to stuff her into its mouth when she kicks it, hard, in the nose. Then while its still yelling over its nose, she takes the yari--this is a Daidoji, right? Of course she still has the yari--and shoves it through one eye into its brain."
"Tetsu-tsuru," someone murmured approvingly.
"There's more," Nichiren said. "The oni drops her and runs off screaming. Meanwhile, the rest of the Daidoji have charged out there after her. There's about twenty of them, and a couple hundred bakemono. The bakemono decide they don't want to mess with anyone stupider than they are and take off after the oni. The ponies grab her and the Crab and haul them back to the barricades. I get there the same time they do. She's standing there, white as a kabuki, trying to comb the filth out her hair with her fingers.'
"'Do you know what you just did?' I roared at her. 'Yes,' she said. 'I've lost another yari'. And then she topples over with blood pouring out of her mouth. The oni had crushed her up when it grabbed her. It took the healers two days before she stopped bleeding on the inside."
"Why'd they bother?" his opponent asked, placing another white stone. "She was a Crane."
"I wasn't done yelling at her." This drew laughter, but Ujirou didn't understand why. The Crab general had looked very serious as he said it. Nichiren picked up a black stone and placed it, leaving the other man blinking with disbelief as a quarter of the board suddenly fell under black's control. "You can still win," Nichiren told him. "Think it through." Then he transferred his attention back to Ujirou. "You don't look like Gisei."
"Hai, Hida-sama," Ujirou said. It was a fact he was unhappily aware of: while his mother had the sturdy, rugged look of a Daidoji warrior, he was fine-boned and delicate. "I am adopted," he added, trying to clear Gisei of wrongdoing. It was hardly her fault he had grown up to look more like a dancer than a bushi.
"Adopted?" Nichiren looked baffled for a moment, then he snorted.
"Cranes and their little games. Of course, adopted." Before Ujirou
could puzzle this statement out the Crab had gone on. "How is Gisei? I had
heard that she was writing histories
for the Daidoji Ryu."
"She was, Hida-sama. When the war began she was sent to the armies that were to recover our southern provinces." After he spoke Ujirou realized that he had just made a horrible, horrible mistake.
Nichiren looked at him coolly. "The Yasuki provinces."
Ujirou felt the skin between his shoulder blades crawl. Keeping his voice as level as he could he replied, "Hai, Hida-sama."
Nichiren's eyes flickered from Ujirou to something behind him and back again without making comment on what, if anything, they had seen. After a long moment he picked up his tea and finished it. "Kinfolk, ancestors and now her friends," he commented. "Death will be a relief for that woman."
The thought made Ujirou feel a little panicky. He wasn't ready for his mother to die. He hadn't mastered the sword yet, hadn't done anything yet to prove that he was going to be a son she could be proud of. And now he had a thirty-foot-tall oni to contend with… "You know her that well," he said. The words had a challenging ring he hadn't quite intended.
"Better than you do, boy," Nichiren said without rancor. "No secrets on the Wall. No time for games." He gave Ujirou a measuring look. "And you? You're a long way from school, tetsu-ko."
Ujirou flushed a little. "I am not a student of the Daidoji Ryu, Hida-sama. I am studying the way of the sword with the sword master Koshin." The Crab's reaction surprised him.
"Koshin," he said meditatively, as if the name meant something to him. "Why--" his eyes flickered over Ujirou again, "--Ahh. Yes. That's a Daidoji tactic: Change the rules. I wonder how she knew of him."
Ujirou knew, and resolved not to tell him. It was a little thing, but it was his. Nichiren glanced at the go board, where his opponent was still thinking on his next move. "Where is your sensei now?"
"He is at the temple, meditating." Where Ujirou wanted to be right now, away from this collection of enemies.
Nichiren stared at Ujirou so hard that the boy was sure the Crab could see the hair on the back of his head. "Too nice of a morning to waste," he said finally. "I think you and I should practice kenjutsu."
Ujirou's mind spun, looking for a way to decline. He had seen the general's eyes go hard and bleak, looking at him. "I thank you greatly for the honor, Hida-sama," he said with a bow. "But I am unworthy of your time and--"
"I will decide who is worthy of my time," Nichiren said, getting off the veranda. He walked over to a mound of equipment sitting at the veranda's corner and pulled a boken out. "Here in the street will do."
There was, Ujirou concluded desperately, no honorable way out. "Hida-sama, I do not have a boken."
"You can use your katana," Nichiren said lazily, strolling into the street. "It won't matter."
Ujirou stood stone-still as the insult flowed over him like hot acid and ate away his fear. He was a Crane. It mattered that he had a katana. He would *make* it matter. He heard a snicker behind him and identified its source: Shoyo. If I live through this, he thought darkly, you are next, Yasuki.
The Crane boy breathed deeply and moved into the street. Bowing to his opponent he drew his katana and settled into his stance. Hida Nichiren, he noted, was easily a foot taller than him with a reach to match, heavily muscled, with years of experience. Ujirou thought he might possibly be faster than him, but since the Crab could probably guess what he was going to do before Ujirou himself thought of it that wouldn't help much.
Thirty-foot oni, Ujirou thought, and attacked.
Nichiren blocked easily and replied with a counterattack so savage that Ujirou almost lost his katana. The boy twisted away from the next blow and tried to feint. The boken came from nowhere he expected and smashed into the ribs on his left side. He staggered back, hunched over the pain.
"A real sword would have cut you in half," Nichiren said affably.
"Hai, Hida-sama," Ujirou croaked, bowing slightly. Then he charged in again on the thin hope the Crab might have taken that as a concession. Nichiren pivoted easily out of the way and kicked his legs out from under him. Ujirou hit the ground rolling, twisted to his feet and spun around just in time to run head-first into a boken.
Ujirou blinked in confusion at the blood pooling on the ground in front of his eyes. It seemed to be his, but he couldn't remember why he was bleeding. He had to get up, he knew. He had to get up. He couldn't remember where up was. After a brief flash of panic he got one hand planted on the ground and slowly pushed himself up. There was the soft scuffle of sandals on stone beside him and Ujirou braced himself for the boken again.
No boken, but a hand that grabbed him by the arm and hauled him upright. The sudden movement made the world lurch and Ujirou briefly considered throwing up. The crisis passed and he found himself staring up at Nichiren. The Crab's eyes were as hard and unfeeling as go stones. "Gisei lost three more yari before she went back to the Crane lands. Do you know why I am telling you this?"
Three more yari plus the one in the oni made four. No. 'I lost *another* yari', so there were at least five. No, that couldn't be the answer. Think it through. Black controls the board. Think it through. You don't look like Gisei. "You think I should be more like my mother," Ujirou whispered.
"No," Nichiren replied. "I think you are like your mother. Very much like her."
Ujirou stared at him, dumbfounded. "You do?"
"I do." Nichiren let go of him slowly, testing the boy's balance before releasing him completely. "Mind, I'm not saying this is a good thing."
A thirty-foot tall oni and a few hundred bakemono. "I can see that, Hida-sama," Ujirou said seriously.
Nichiren didn't smile, but some of the bleakness went out of his face. "Good. Give your sensei my greetings. I may look for him someday. Not today--too much to do."
"Hai, Hida-sama," Ujirou said, bowing as deeply as he could. It wasn't the correct depth, but he feared falling over. As he did so he noticed that he was still clutching his katana in his right hand. He sheathed the blade and bowed again. Nichiren nodded and turned away.
Ujirou turned around himself and started walking slowly towards the temple, pulling out a silk handkerchief as he did so. The blood, he was discovering, was coming from a cut on his lip as well as his nose. He wondered what the girl at the noodle shop would think. He tried not to think of what his sensei would think. From behind him he heard the voice of a Crab general.
"Shoyo-kun, I think you and I should practice kenjutsu."
Ujirou grinned into his handkerchief.