Reflecting the Past
A Story of the Kouryo-no-Ken
"As he walks the Way, the swordmaster must live for
the one step that he is taking…"
- The Kouryo-no-Ken
Doji Yamadori had never liked the rain.
He had always imagined that it was the sound, or the simple feeling of dampness or cold that seemed to seep through his kimono and into his bones. Oftentimes it made his hair unmanageable, or spoiled a kimono that he had started wearing just that day. But as the bushi stood beneath the eaves of the Kakita Academy, looking up at the sky's dark blues and stormy grays, the Crane knew better than to blame such trivial things.
The truth was that he was reminded of someone…when it rained.
As a student of Kakita one of the principles in Yamadori's life was to live life fully; no second chances, and no need for regrets. In most ways, he had been most successful, both in living his life with honor and in carrying on his line.
He told himself that it was natural to regret at least one thing, especially when it rained.
The voice did not startle him; Yamadori had spent more than twenty years in duels and the odd skirmish, and had learned the importance of not forgetting to listen just because your mind was filled with thoughts. The Crane had simply ignored the newcomer, hoping that they would pass him by.
"You seem so quiet today, Master Yamadori. Do the burdens of your command still plague your mind?"
The bushi turned, his mind and response instantly prepared. "Touji-san, I wondered if those light steps were yours."
The Shiba bushi had come to the Academies only recently, sent by his sensei in order to further the good relations between the Phoenix and Crane clans. Dressed in a pale golden kimono trimmed with red flames, the man moved smoothly, with a wrinkled face was more telling of long duties than of his age.
"You said that I seem quiet," the older man said as the rain continued falling. "It is not that. It is just…when you have lived as much as I have, you find more time to think about things."
Touji looked out at the glistening garden. "Strange words, coming from a man of your reputation. I have heard that age has hardly changed you…"
"That is true," the Doji admitted with a small smile, "but you would be amazed at how many can be dissuaded by such a line."
The Phoenix laughed, which was rare for him, so rare that it almost shook the older man's poise. "It is true that the Crane possess a wisdom even the Phoenix have not fully tapped…"
Yamadori smiled, "We call it 'Sarcasm.' You seem skilled in it as well."
Touji shook his head. "I hope that you will find time to visit the Falling Rain Dojo in two weeks, Master Yamadori. If nothing else, your words will serve to entertain me when the exhibition fails to do so."
The samurai nodded absently, his mind shuddering at the idea of travelling to the lesser dojo in order to observe the newest oddity of the Crane. He had little time before the Crane legions marched north to Shiro no Yojin, and the Doji had hoped to see his children, or at least attend some more interesting part of the courts. "I would think that this 'Meandering Sword' would be enough to keep you engaged, Touji-san."
"Traveling Sword," the Shiba corrected, mistaking the bushi's slight for a genuine mistake. "I have already seen it, at the pinnacle of its use. Though I am interested to see how young Ujirou performs, he can hardly surprise these eyes."
Yamadori's voice shuddered almost unnoticeably; something that he almost never failed to control. A veteran duelist was used to constant surprises, but this one shocked him to his core. "'Young…Ujirou,' Touji-san?"
The Phoenix nodded, holding out his hand to test the dying rain. "I have been told that he has achieved his gempukku, so I should not call him such again. He was with Koshin-dono when he fought Masters Dekai and Mori."
Shiba Touji talked for a long time about his encounter with the Swordmaster, but though the Doji bushi listened to each statement, his mind scarcely caught a word.
* * *
It should have been raining.
Daidoji Koshindou strode down the long walkway that surrounded the main building of the Falling Rain Dojo, wondering what it meant for them when there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The young man eventually decided that he would hope it was an omen against the school's bushi…anything to help the boy when the time for his exhibition came.
Lord Hitsuyou had arranged for this meeting, and the Falling Rain sensei were eager to observe the style of the Ni-Ken no Tsuru. Even now, the younger students were preparing the main dojo for tomorrow's exhibition matches…
Koshindou could feel that same old nervousness, sneaking up from his stomach to his heart.
The sound of runners alerted the Daidoji, who turned just in time to see a large palanquin arrive. Visitors had been arriving since mid-morning on the invitation of the Falling Rain; the boy could not understand why this one so drew his eyes.
There was something there that felt familiar. Familiar…and very strong.
Shiba Touji removed himself from the palanquin with a grunt and one hand massaging a sore neck; the Phoenix bushi was dressed in a red kimono with a deep grey obi that held his daisho tight. Koshindou smiled broadly as the samurai noticed him.
"Uji-I mean, Koshindou-san." The Shiba's face was calm and rested, masking some of the lines that the Crane recalled. His face crinkled slightly, as if he saw something strange in the face of the young man. "It is good to see that you have arrived safely."
Touji's voice was not well suited for formal greetings, but he was sincerely pleased to see the boy. Koshindou bowed to the newcomer, "I am happy to see you, Touji-san. I did not know that you were in Crane lands."
Another figure had stepped from the palanquin behind the crimson warrior; Koshindou did not move his eyes to look, but the man's keen focus came through loud and clear.
"I would not miss the chance to see Koshin-dono's pupil," the Phoenix continued. He noticed the boy's eyes and understood them. "But I have gotten ahead of myself, Koshindou-san. Allow me to present Doji Yamadori-san, Commander of the Wild Rose Legion."
Doji Yamadori was dressed in a perfect mixture of pale blues and purest whites, his Kakita swords polished and arranged along his side. His whole form was commanding, pristine and beautiful; Koshindou found his face flush despite himself as the samurai approached with an errorless gait. And his face…like the sun in an old painting, touched by age only where it would be permitted, as if time had heightened, rather than stolen the Crane's light.
Koshindou shook himself from his silence, and bowed. "Konnichi-wa, Yamadori-sama. I have heard your name mentioned many times."
For some reason, the statement caused the older Crane to hesitate a moment; he looked down at Koshindou intently, lingering on his three swords and the tattoos on his wrists. When he finally spoke, the words were perfectly arranged and noble.
"Thank you for your kind words, Koshindou-san. I have heard many things about you also," Yamadori said with a deep bow. Again, his eyes lingered on the young man, and the Daidoji wished that he could see what was hidden in the Kenshinzen's quiet gaze.
"I look forward to seeing what you have learned."
Touji cocked one eyebrow at the Doji, as if he too sensed something strange behind those perfect words. But Doji Yamadori waited no longer, stepping smoothly into the dojo to greet the other guests as they milled about inside.
"I think that I have made your life more difficult, Koshindou-san," said Shiba Touji as one hand rubbed his jaw. "Yamadori seems quite focused on what you can do. He is not easily impressed."
Koshindou smiled; it was hardly the first time that he was faced with the animosity of a fellow Crane. "Are you saying that I will not perform to his level of excellence, Touji-san?"
Looking down at the small boy with a knowing smile the Shiba shook his head at the humor. "Levels of excellence," he said with a final nod to the young swordsman.
"Only in the lands of the Crane."
* * *
The dojo floor of the Falling Rain was cold in the early morning; sleepy courtiers and bushi hid their yawns behind fans and turned faces, all of them immaculate in their robes. Koshindou was dressed simply, in a deep blue kimono his mother had given him; it afforded freedom of movement as well as a beautiful pattern.
One look was all it took to spy Shiba Touji, one of the few visitors calm and stoic even in the early morning haze. Beside the Phoenix stood the Doji, Yamadori; his pale face was smooth and youthful, and Koshindou noticed that several of the female courtiers were engaged in idle conversation with the older man.
A few of them glanced from Yamadori to Koshindou and then back again, but whatever they were saying, the Doji just brushed aside with perfect smiles and clever words.
He's making fun of me, the young man told himself with an inaudible sigh.
It was strange that even now Yamadori exuded such a fierce and burning focus, but as the head sensei of the Falling Rain Dojo stepped forward, Koshindou had no time to wonder on it.
Who the Crane samurai reminded him of came second.
What came first was winning the fight.
* * *
Shiba Touji did not answer the bushi, and Yamadori did not waste a turn of his eyes. He was impressed at the boy's ability to counter the dodges and pivots that the Falling Rain were known for…
Even wielding the two swords of the so-called Swordmaster, the young man's poise and control were enough to fill the Doji with pride. The Doji was glad that he had taken this chance, after so many years--the remarks of a few courtiers on similarities were a small price to see the boy perform.
One of the senior students had stepped forward now, a man a few years older than the Daidoji, who the crowd seemed pleased to see. Yamadori smiled as he saw no more sleepy eyes among the observers as Koshindou turned his wooden swords to meet this newest opponent…
It was good that they appreciated something of what they saw.
Everything happened in a moment, as all true duels do. The white-haired Doji ignored gasps of shock and focused on the motions; when the exchange was over, Daidoji Koshindou stood with his cheek smashed sideways, one sword remaining in his hands.
Yamadori smiled a knowing smile, watching as the loser bowed to the senior student of the Falling Rain.
"So that is Gisei's son."
* * *
It was just past sunset when Daidoji Koshindou arrived at the court that evening, his pale face tended by the Asahina and a small smile hidden in his large eyes. As he moved forward, the young man looked for Shiba Touji or Doji Yamadori; there was something about the older man that unsettled him for some reason.
Before he did that, the samurai was greeted by the call of several of the senior students. He bowed to them, a little deeper than etiquette required.
"You proved yourself to be a fine warrior, Koshindou-san," one of them said, his lip still red from the morning's exchange.
"Almost enough to beat Hirumago-san," chirped another, glancing up at the taller student with more than a little bit of awe.
Kakita Hirumago smiled at the little swordsman, his eyes half-hidden by a mask of long, straight hair. "Your Kouryo-no-Ken is impressive, Koshindou-san…though it seemed no match for a senior of Falling Rain."
A few laughs split the group, but Koshindou just hid his eyes behind white hair. The empty boasts and small slights would continue throughout the evening, at least until one of the elder bushi interceded on the Daidoji's behalf.
By the time that it all ended the young man understood some of his sensei's old stories and complaints a little better, at least concerning the strain of polite words. He went toward his bedroom more drained than after the combat that morning, not knowing that his night had only begun.
* * *
"One sword or two swords, you are Gisei's son."
Stopping in the garden, Koshindou looked over to one of the three small streams that flowed past the Falling Rain Dojo. Doji Yamadori stood there observing a small red flower, his body wrapped in finer court robes. The chill of the night seemed to make the older man seem even prouder and nobler, as if even the world's darkness could only intensify his inner flame.
"How do you know my mother, Yamadori-san?" Koshindou still could not decide who the Kenshinzen reminded him of as he looked upon him openly now.
"We were friends, long ago," the Doji said, with the kind of sad smile that Koshindou's sensei had used when he spoke of the loved ones he had lost to circumstance and time. "But I knew who you were from your exhibition this morning, Koshindou-san…only a Daidoji wins in such a way."
The boy blinked in surprise as the older man approached him. "I am sorry, Yamadori-sama, but I do not understand."
"Restraint," the Crane said, as if quoting someone as his left hand touched an old fan in his obi. "That is what I saw today. You thrust with your left sword and Hirumago evades. You parry his attack with your right as he spins, and strike at his face with your first blade."
"You hand…slips from the bokken, and he counters with a cross-slash."
Koshindou felt as if he was about to be scolded; he had only done what Hitsuyou had asked of him. It would not foster further friendship between Falling Rain and Daidoji to hand their students a defeat at the hands of one young Crane. He hated losing, but he had done what he had needed to do.
"Only your mother could have taught you that." Yamadori smiled, dropping the small flower into the calm reflecting pool.
The Daidoji bowed. "My sensei taught me that, Yamadori-sama."
The Crane glanced at his young kinsmen, his eyes flashing in surprise. "Your sensei."
"'You must know what victory means,' he told me."
"So this is the 'wisdom' that third sword lets you see?"
Koshindou made a face, though the dimness of the garden hid it well. "A Crane needs only one sword to do his duty to his clan, Koshindou-san. No matter what his intentions, I believe that your sensei has wasted your integrity and time."
The boy stood quiet in the darkness, the student of Kakita watching him through the night. When the words came, Doji Yamadori could hear that he had hurt the young samurai; hurt him, but in a manner that he had been hurt before.
"Think what you wish of my style, Yamadori-sama, but do not say bad things about my sensei."
It was not merely an idle statement. It was an order…and a challenge too.
I have been waiting for this for a long time, Yamadori said to himself with a smile.
"Tomorrow morning," were the only words that Koshindou heard.
* * *
There was only the sound of the rain that morning, when Doji Yamadori stepped in to the dojo with his sword. To his surprise, the Daidoji boy was present already; their duel was not for more than an hour, and he had not expected anyone else to risk the cold and rain before dawn.
"Yamadori-sama." The boy bowed respectfully.
The older man removed his zori and retrieved a single bokken. "Good morning, young bushi. Do you always awaken so early to train?"
Koshindou's large eyes were intensely focused. "I do. If it does not bother you, Yamadori-sama, we are both here."
"You wish to settle the duel now?"
The young man nodded. "My master wishes me to leave for home by mid-morning; if you injure me now I can have my wounds tended soon enough so that I do not delay him…"
"And if I kill you?" Yamadori asked with a serious look in his shining eyes.
Koshindou took his stance as an answer, holding a wooden sword in each hand. The Doji smiled as he responded with an equal motion, though his stance was more focused and controlled. The two of them were silent for a moment, sensing their opponent and planning both contingencies and moves.
When the young man attacked, he came forward like thunder, both wooden blades held back and low. Doji Yamadori was the calm reflection of poise and calm; there was no way that Koshindou could defeat him…
A one-handed side slash with the left blade: Yamadori's bokken parried it easily, redirecting the force to one side. Next came a long, darting thrust like the match against Hirumago: the Doji evaded it smoothly, reversing his sword to tear the younger man's wooden weapon away.
Then the student of the Kouryo-no-Ken did something that Yamadori had not expected: he let go. Freely loosed, the bokken flew out to the far side of the dojo, the Doji's own power adding speed to Koshindou's hand. The Daidoji's first sword whipped up in a two-handed embrace, and then descended…
Doji Yamadori's body rushed backwards to avoid it; the tatami mat where he had been a moment ago shattered, but the strike felt silk and air instead of skin or flesh. The Daidoji immediately parried from his missed attack; even so his block was barely fast enough to block the Kakita sword strike.
Koshindou struggled; Yamadori was not that much stronger than he was, but the seasoned veteran had his feet placed perfectly, holding tightly to his enemy with a locked blade. The Doji was looking at him, watching his every movement…he was missing nothing of this fight.
Breaking the lock, Koshindou receded, but the swordsman was right upon him, each practiced slash barely matched by the boy's remaining sword. Outclassed and outmaneuvered, the Daidoji became shocked and winded; Yamadori pivoted on his right foot and slashed upward, his wooden sword just missing he edge of the boy's pale face.
Motion ceased as the boy's feet slid to a stop on the tatami, sweat covering his face as he took breath after ragged breath. Doji Yamadori's perfect form held his own bokken lightly. "What will you do now?"
Koshindou smiled. "Whatever I can."
The last charge surprised Yamadori more than he would admit to; Koshindou rushed in with his sword extended behind him, hiding the blade till he swung. The Doji parried in a great circle, extending both weapons to the heavens: the smaller samurai would not be able to compensate, and would lose his final sword.
One last time, Doji Yamadori was surprised. Koshindou leaped, following the arc of his weapon and freeing it from the parry with the move. Again the two handed strike descended on the Kakita-trained swordsman…
But Doji Yamadori was faster than lightning, and struck in the moment that hung before the slash of the wooden sword. One perfect slash struck the Daidoji before he landed, his own attack biting only into another empty mat.
Pain arched out from his chest like throbbing tendrils; Koshindou crouched on the floor where his attack had born him, knowing better than to try and rise. "I…I think that you win, Y-Yamadori-sama."
Behind him the Doji was radiant, an appreciative smile filling his eyes. In those fleeting moments he had learned more about Gisei's child than he had ever hoped for; he had seen the long hours, the diligence and the sacrifice that the young man had placed into his swords.
"You are a strong man, Koshindou," Yamadori said as evenly as he could manage, a small bit of old sentiment slipping past his perfect bearing. "And you are a good Daidoji…"
You would have made a fine Doji.
"…And a fine Crane."
You would have been a good son.
Yamadori helped the young man to his feet, steadying him against the growing bruises beneath his clothes. With that same proud face, Koshindou nodded to the swordsman, "Thank you, Yamadori-sama…I should go."
For once, the Doji samurai had nothing to say to the young man. His eyes seemed to soften as he bowed and let the Daidoji limp back into the recesses of the dojo; the pair of wooden swords his opponent had used held his attention, surrounded by the distant sounds of falling rain.
* * *
Shiba Touji was waiting when the young man's palanquin was brought for him; Koshindou did not particularly like the method of travel, but his hosts would not have it any other way with the heavens still promising another storm. The Daidoji moved stiffly down the stairs to meet the dour Phoenix.
"You performed well this time, Koshindou-san. I hope to see you again another day."
Smiling weakly, the boy bowed with a little grimace of pain. "I hope that you will come and visit me sometime, Touji-san. Lord Hitsuyou has few visitors, but I would like to spar with you sometime."
The bushi nodded, his weathered face cut by a small smile. "Always the swordsman. May the Fortunes precede you, Daidoji Koshindou."
"And you," he said as he slipped into the palanquin's cool darkness.
"He is a fine young bushi," Doji Yamadori said as he came down the dojo's stairs. Dressed in a simple kimono of gold and azure the samurai watched the young man's palanquin until it vanished at the edge of the southern forest. "I owe you much for convincing me to come."
"And yet you did not say goodbye, Yamadori-san."
The Doji touched the same old fan that he always carried, but no change in his composure caught the Shiba's eyes. "I said what needed said, Touji-san."
"And left unsaid what needed, too."
Shiba Touji arched one eyebrow at the last statement, drawing the Crane's attention with his curious look. "Old age again, Yamadori-san?"
The Doji just smiled as more rain began to fall.
The Path Goes On