Walking the Way
By Nancy Sauer

It had snowed lightly during the night, and the path under Doji Yamadori's feet crunched softly as he walked through the garden's pre-dawn silence. He savored the sound the way he savored all things found in the magical time when sunrise approached and the world waited to be reborn.

The path turned around a cluster of small pines and his destination came into view: a small wooden structure that served as a dojo for guests at the home of Lord Doji Hanoshi. Yamadori had quickly learned that coming to the dojo at this hour meant he could have it to himself; the lord's other guests either preformed their morning kata in the indoor dojo in the castle proper, or waited until the servants had lit the braziers that took the chill out of the garden dojo. But Yamadori had learned the art of the sword at the Kakita Dueling Academy, and he knew that a true master was not put off by little things like chilly winter mornings. The bite of morning cold was an acceptable price for the pure and flawless focus he found in the silence of dawn.

As he mounted the steps to the building's porch the duelist heard the soft swish of movement within. Yamadori paused for a moment in vexed confusion and then slowly slid open the door, wondering who else had been lured into the garden at this hour. The woman he saw was a stranger to him, and her movements made no sense until he noticed the blunted yari in her hands. That told the Doji who she had to be, and his mood soured at the thought. It was that Daidoji woman. Gisei.

The samurai-ko ended her kata and turned to face him. "Good morning, sama. I..." her words trailed off when she saw his face. It was a reaction Yamadori was familiar with: His was a rare and special beauty, and only the very dull failed to appreciate it. He took advantage of the pause to study her. Gisei was tall for a woman, though not for a Daidoji, and her shoulder-length white hair--cut far too short to befit a lady--was pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes were an interesting shade of clear gray, set in a face that was attractive enough at first glance, but on close examination the skin around her eyes and mouth showed the lines of someone who had spent too much time in the sun and wind.

Another pretty woman ruined by the life of a bushi, Yamadori thought. Aloud he said, "Good morning. Is this not a lovely dojo? Hanoshi-sama had it built for his guests who wished to practice the way of the sword." He kept his tone light and pleasant, with only the slightest emphasis on the final word.

Gisei's eyes didn't move, but her hands shifted slightly on the shaft of the yari. "Hanoshi-sama is a thoughtful host," she said quietly. "Kakita himself wrote that one must practice diligently. I am Daidoji Gisei." She bowed slightly, as if to an equal.

Yamadori kept his face bland as he matched her bow. "I am Doji Yamadori. I am, surely, honored to meet you."

"As I am honored to meet you, Doji-san." Gisei walked over to the rack of pole arms mounted on the wall of the dojo and carefully fitted the yari into its place. "And now I must beg you to excuse me--I have many preparations to make before I appear in Hanoshi-sama's court this morning."

"Of course, Daidoji-san," Yamadori said. "I shall look forward to seeing you in court." It was a lie, but a polite one.

The samurai-ko murmured something polite in return and slipped out of the dojo. Yamadori kept a mild expression fixed on his face until he heard her steps on the snowy path. Then his control slipped and the duelist felt his face twist up into a grimace. He loathed the Daidoji. He loathed their obsession with the yari, a peasant weapon that ought to be beneath the notice of a Crane samurai; he loathed their skulking, dishonorable tactics in battle; he loathed the insolence they had shown in going to war against their Champion. Most of all, he loathed the power they now held within the Crane.

His was a family of courtiers, and Yamadori was privileged to hear the gossip from every corner of the Crane lands. And everywhere it was the same: The lords of the Crane praised Kaiten-sensei for his deft handling of the Regency, and watched closely to see what Daidoji Uji would do. Kaiten had the title. Uji had the armies. It was blatantly unfair.

Eventually the duelist drew in a deep breath and forced his rage back down. Sunrise was drawing on, and if he was to finish his kata in time to attend morning court he would have to hurry. Walking to the center of the dojo he assumed his stance.

* * *

By the time Yamadori had bathed, breakfasted, dressed, and arranged his hair court had begun. The handsome young Doji stood near the entrance of the main hall and looked over the crowd, trying to decide who was worth talking to. He spotted Gisei almost immediately, speaking with Doji Junichiro, one of Hanoshi's advisors, and was a little started by the sight. Someone had done a careful job of applying make-up on her, and with the damage done by the elements hidden she looked much younger. Wearing formal court clothing, she reminded the duelist of his younger sister playing dress-up in one of their mother's old kimonos.

"Good morning, Yamadori-san," said a smooth, feminine voice.

Yamadori turned to discover Kakita Unako standing next to him, and smiled. Aside from being an actress of great skill Unako was an extremely beautiful woman. Raven-black hair, elaborately styled, accented an oval face with delicate, classically-formed features. Her eyes were black and large and they looked at him coyly over the top of the fan she carried.

"Any morning that includes a glimpse of you is a good morning, Unako-san," he said, bowing gracefully to her.

The actress laughed delicately and cast her eyes down briefly. "Woe, my poor heart!" she replied. "How can it withstand the smooth words of a Kakita?"

Yamadori's smile grew fractionally larger at this reference to his school. "If my words are smooth, it is because I am inspired by your own gracious presence."

"Flattery, flattery--Hanoshi-sama's court is filled with women more beautiful than I. Were you not just admiring one?" Unako's tone was still light, but her eyes had a considering look.

Yamadori raised one eyebrow in inquiry. "Certainly Gisei is more beautiful than any number of women. Given some time, I am sure I could think of their names…"

Unako moved slightly closer to him and lowered her fan, the sleeve of her kimono brushing his hand as if by accident. "She is the only Daidoji visitor to Hanoshi-sama's court," she said sweetly. "I think we should go and speak with her."

Left to himself, Yamadori would be perfectly happy never to speak with a Daidoji ever again, but it was hard to remember that with Unako smiling at him. "Yes," the duelist said. "Yes, of course."

The actress led the way, and when she arrived she bowed and greeted first
Junichiro and then the Daidoji woman. "Konnichiwa, Daidoji-san. I am Kakita Unako. Please allow me to express my hopes that your lord will quickly recover his health."

Gisei smiled politely and bowed back. "Konnichiwa, Kakita-san. I am Daidoji Gisei, and I thank you for your kind words. Yoshitaka-dono's healers are quite skilled, so I am certain he will quickly recover."

"Please, Daidoji-san, you must call me Unako," the actress said warmly. "We should all strive to be friends here at Hanoshi-sama's court. Is that not so, Junichiro-san?"

"Indeed," Junichiro said blandly. He was an older man with a round, moon-like face, and it was said that Hanoshi valued his council immensely.

"So you must call me Gisei," the samurai-ko replied.

"Excellent," Unako said, beaming. "Gisei-san, please let me introduce my friend Doji Yamadori."

Yamadori smiled and bowed slightly, doing his best to be polite. "We have already had the pleasure of meeting. Gisei-san possesses the diligence of a true Crane, and she managed to get to the garden dojo even before I this morning."

"You are too kind, Yamadori-san," she replied. "The truth is my excitement at being here at Hanoshi-sama's house was so great I couldn't sleep. Junichiro-san has told me there is to be both an ice sculpture competition and a poetry recital today."

"Oh, yes," Unako said, "Hanoshi-sama has filled his court with the glories of our clan." She smoothly launched into a discussion on the various artisans who were present and what was being planned to showcase their talents. Yamadori listened with interest, noticing that while Gisei seemed to be well informed on literature, she was weak on court gossip and fashion. Unako was leading the conversation to the topic of the upcoming Test of the Silk Champion when a voice spoke up from behind them.

"Such august company I find you in, Gisei. How could a lowly magistrate hope to compete for your attention?"

"Shigeyuki!" the Daidoji exclaimed. "How wonderful!"

How horrible, Yamadori thought, eyeing the new arrival warily. Doji Shigeyuki was a graduate of the Falling Rain Dojo, a dueling school that taught Kakita's Sword. Falling Rain had been founded after Kakita's own school, but before it had been formally established as the Kakita Dueling Academy, a technicality that occasionally led to duels between students of the two dojos. Given Shigeyuki's complete refusal to admit to Yamadori's superior technique he thought maybe it was time for another such duel.

"I didn't know that you would be here," Gisei continued.

"I was sent by my lord as part of the escort for the tea master, Asahina Otojiro," Shigeyuki said. "But Master Otojiro has no need for me at the moment, so I'm amusing myself by looking at hands."

"Hands?" Gisei said, an odd look on her face.

"Surely. You will notice that Unako-san," he bowed to the actress, "has hands that are most delicate and refined." She blushed attractively and raised her fan to cover more of her face, which made her hands easier to look at.

Yamadori wondered at the look of enlightenment that briefly crossed Gisei's face. Her hands were callused and nicked with scars; no man would ever call them delicate. "They merely partake of their mistress's nature," the duelist said, "for all of Unako-san is delicate and refined."

"Oh, you both must stop," Unako said, laughing a little. "I will surely be undone by you two flatterers."

"Lady, since you command me so sweetly I must obey," the magistrate said. "But I'll claim Gisei's company as a forfeit--I was just telling our Mirumoto visitor how we first met, and he is now most interested in meeting her."

"Perhaps Gisei-san wishes to stay here?" The Kakita woman smiled at her. "After all, we women must band together against you rakes."

"Very true, Unako-san," Gisei said gravely, "very true. But I think I need to go, and undo any foolish thoughts Shigeyuki's put in that poor Dragon's head." She nodded to Unako and Yamadori. "Our conversation was most illuminating, and I am sure we will speak again."

* * *

"He's claiming that his lord's dead wife turned into an ubume, and that Gisei rescued the baby and returned it home."

"Amazing," Yamadori said, enthralled by the idea. He had always loved ghost stories.

"Amazingly convenient," Unako said, pouring him more sweet sake. "Taiu now has an heir, without needing permission from his lord to remarry or adopt, and a means of ingratiating himself with the Daidoji."

Yamadori sipped his sake. It was late in the evening and the two of them were in the actress's sitting room. Being alone with a woman in her sitting room usually made the duelist think of other rooms--like bedrooms--but Unako had been sprinkling political commentary into their conversation all night, mirroring his own private opinions and dividing his concentration. "And why would Taiu-sama wish to do that?" he finally asked. "None of his lands border Daidoji holdings."

"Indeed, there is no reason for anyone to concern themselves with the Daidoji," Unako said in a voice both bitter and sweet. "They control most of the clan's arable land, now that the Great Kumo has ravaged the Doji Plains. They have the largest armies, and after a thousand years of 'protecting' the rest of the clan they have detailed plans of every fortress the Doji and Kakita hold. And they have an infant Champion, who is completely unable to issue them orders. No, there is no reason to be concerned about the Daidoji."

"You have forgotten Kaiten-sensei," Yamadori objected.

Unako looked at him, then drew a deep breath. "Kakita Kaiten, our beloved Regent, is irrelevant," she said. "He rules because he has yet to give Uji a reason to get rid of him."

Yamadori put his cup down abruptly. "Kaiten-sensei is a man of honor and strength! He isn't afraid of Uji! And he could defeat him in a duel any time, any place!"

"The Daidoji don't duel their enemies. They ambush them." The actress's voice changed subtly, becoming somehow more masculine and layered with the accents of the southern provinces. "I am so sorry, Lady Doji, your son's Regent was killed by bandits. Not to worry, I will be the new Regent, and my Daidoji yojimbo will keep you and your son perfectly safe."

Yamadori felt his skin crawl at Unako's words. He didn't want to believe that any Crane was capable of such treason, but Uji had rebelled once already...who could know what the limits of a Daidoji were? "Could he really be so dishonorable? Did not Shukujo give its blessings to his actions?"

"So we are told. Of course, we are also told that Shukujo has been carried up into the heavens, and so is no longer available for consultation. Another convenient happenstance." Unako poured him more sake.

"Still...the other Crane lords would protest."

"And that would accomplish what? Once Uji has his hands on Kuwanan's son the rest of us will be helpless to oppose him." Unako moved closer to him and laid a delicate hand on his arm. "No, if we are to protect the line of Doji-kami we must act now, before Uji does."

Yamadori was acutely aware of the woman's perfume, and the warmth of her hand through his sleeve. "What do you mean?"

"Complacency favors Uji. The more people go back to thinking of the Daidoji as kinsmen, as Cranes, the easier his task is. We must keep them awake, keep reminding them how alien the 'iron cranes' truly are to us. They produce no art, they disregard honor, they show excellence only in slaughter!"

Yamadori's mind flashed back to his first meeting with Gisei. "They lack a proper respect for the sword."

"Exactly!" Unako said. Her voice took on a tender, pleading quality. "Yamadori, I need your help. I am a woman, and weak--there is no way I can challenge a warrior of Uji's might. But with your aid, I can at least show Hanoshi-sama and the rest the danger we are in."

Yamadori stared into her black, brilliant eyes, caught by possibility. He had been unable to fight in Kuwanan-dono's armies against the Daidoji, kept safe at the Academy by his father's orders. When the Crane Champion had been wounded at Volturnum, Yamadori had been cooling his heels at his family's mansion. But now...now he had a chance to act, a chance to show that he was a true son of the Doji. "Yes," he said.

Unako smiled and put her arms around him. "Oh, thank you," she whispered into his ear. "You can't imagine how alone I've felt."

For the first time that evening Yamadori focused on something. "Do not worry, my little flower," he said, picking the ornaments out of her hair. "I have no intention of leaving you alone."

* * *

Unako tapped her closed fan on her hand and regarded the Dragon samurai with a look of polite confusion. "But Nikkan-san," she said, "surely you don't dispute that the Crane possess excellence!"

The Mirumoto finished his tea and calmly set down the cup. "I dispute that excellence is a 'thing' that can be possessed. That the Crane prize the virtue of excellence above all other clans is, of course, indisputable."

Yamadori listened to the debate with half an ear. Philosophy bored him, but he couldn't leave just yet. Unako, Yamadori, Gisei, Junichiro, Nikkan and Shigeyuki--the small circle of listeners had everyone they needed for Unako's plan. As Nikkan and the actress traded quotations from the Tao the Doji's attention wandered back to Gisei. There was a certain risk in studying her; Shigeyuki had already extricated Gisei from two potential embarrassments at court in the last week, and if the Iron Lapdog noticed Yamadori's interest he might be alerted to what was about to happen.

Still, he couldn't quite stop looking at her kimono. It wasn't, strictly speaking, fashionable--there was only one under kimono, the obi was a solid gray, ornamented only by the textured weave of the fabric, and the kimono itself had a starkly simple design of a crane flying through a stormy sky, a single bare tree in the background. Compared to Unako's kimono, with its many layers of brightly-colored under kimono and the happy riot of fans, cranes and flowering tree branches that spread out on the outer kimono, it should have looked plain, even dowdy. But the pearly, shifting gray of the obi complemented her eyes, and the struggling crane had been beautifully rendered by a skilled painter. Yamadori looked at one of the room's painted screens while he contemplated Gisei's kimono and found that he really couldn't fault her for choosing beauty over fashion.

"Well," Unako said, snapping open her fan and reclaiming his attention, "the Kakita practice the arts, the Doji politics, the Asahina the making nemuranai, the Daidoji…." Her voice trailed off uncertainly, a look of mild embarrassment on her face.

"The Daidoji are warriors, Unako-san," Yamadori said, right on cue. "Naturally they excel in the way of the sword." He nodded politely to Gisei.

"It is true," Gisei said, "but our grasp of the sword cannot compare with those who study the art of the duel in Kakita's footsteps."

The Daidoji's reply was a conventional politeness, and it was just what Yamadori was looking for. "Indeed, the students of Kakita's Academy have set the standard in the study of iaijutsu," he said. From the corner of his eye he saw Shigiyuki's face freeze. "But I am sure that the Daidoji would compare well in the matter of kenjutsu."

"It is an art we study extensively," Gisei acknowledged. There was a slight tension about her, Yamadori noticed, as if she were starting to sense something amiss. 'Too late, Daidoji,' he thought.

"It is sad that the Daidoji are overshadowed so," Unako said thoughtfully. "We should arrange an exhibition duel for Gisei, so that she could display her family's excellence for all to see."

"An excellent idea," Yamadori said. "I would be happy to serve as Gisei's opponent."

"I am overwhelmed by your kindness," Gisei said. Her face showed nothing, but her hand was tightly clenched around her fan. "But I would not want to draw attention away from any of the other entertainments Hanoshi-sama has planned."

"Ah, that is very true," Unako said, looking as if she was thinking. "Junichiro-san, there is nothing planned for tomorrow evening, is there?"

"Nothing in the early hours," Junichiro replied. "Later there will be a story recital."

"You see?" Unako said, smiling at the Daidoji woman. "There is no problem."

Gisei hesitated before speaking, and Yamadori could guess at what was going through her mind. No one in their right mind wanted to duel a graduate of the Kakita Academy, but to refuse would shame her in front of one of Hanoshi's advisors. Finally she spoke. "Very well, a kenjutsu duel it is."

"Excellent," Yamadori said, smiling. "Winner to be determined by first blood."

There was a moment of silence from around the circle. "I don't think that it is necessary to go to blood," Shigeyuki said finally.

"Certainly someone whose school is weak would look upon bloodshed as something to be avoided at all costs," Yamadori said blandly. He smiled as the insult registered and the magistrate glared at him in sudden fury. Two, Yamadori thought, elated. Two duels....

"I accept your terms," Gisei said, her voice cutting between the two men. "Nikkan-san, I ask that you serve as master of ceremonies for the duel."

"I would be pleased to do so," Nikkan said, his face placid.

"Thank you." Gisei rose to her feet in one fluid movement and bowed to the circle. "If the company will excuse me, I have preparations to make. Shigeyuki-san, would you assist me?"

"Certainly," he replied. After one last murderous look at Yamadori he too rose and bowed farewell. Gisei turned and made her way to the door, her soldier's gait a marked contrast to Shigeyuki's graceful stride.

* * *

When Yamadori arrived at the indoor dojo he found Gisei already there, along with a crowd of spectators. Running his eyes over the crowd the duelist gave one kind of smile to Unako, and a very different one to Shigeyuki. The Falling Rain man looked at him expressionlessly and then turned away to speak to Master Otojiro, who was standing next to him. The tea master shook his head. Yamadori smirked a little as he made his way to his place. Shigeyuki was next.

As he waited for Nikkan to begin the Doji began to study his opponent. Today Gisei was dressed in a hakima and kimono of pale, clear blues, with the only touch of gray being the color of her eyes. She regarded him coolly, showing none of the nervousness he would have expected. Her body was relaxed, with no tension in her back or shoulders.

At Nikkan's signal the combatants bowed to each other and advanced to the center of the dojo. "Daidoji Gisei," the samurai-ko said, drawing her blade and taking a defensive stance, blade held out and parallel to the floor, "Daidoji Ryu."

"Doji Yamadori," he replied, "Kakita Ryu." He drew his katana and settled into an aggressive stance, focusing himself on his opponent and probing for the weakness, the crack in her composure that would give him victory--and found none. Gisei's calm was a cool, deep pool that he could not ripple, no matter what he did. Yamadori stared a moment longer, searching for some flaw in her concentration, then gave it up and attacked.

His strike was flawless, bright steel arcing sideways to graze the arm of the Daidoji with a speed she could not possibly counter. With some shard of his attention Yamadori heard the audience gasp at his speed--and heard them gasp a second time as Gisei somehow appeared out of range of his katana, looking neither flustered or hurried. Without thinking the duelist swept his blade back around for a second strike, and once again she flowed out of reach. Smothering his frustration, Yamadori tried to force her off her guard with a series feints and strikes, but the result was the same: the Daidoji simply wasn't where his blade was.

The Doji was starting to wonder if he was going to have to chase Gisei into a corner before he could claim his victory when her katana suddenly raced out and bound itself up in his. Yamadori tried to disengage and found that he couldn't: the Daidoji locked her tsuba under his and pulled up, leaving him with the choice of letting go of his sword or following her motion. He stepped closer to her in an effort to break her hold and found himself staring into a pair of iron eyes pupiled with darkness. He stood there for a moment, feeling the hair on the back of his neck rise, and then she released him, shoving him back so hard he staggered and almost fell.

Yamadori caught his balance and then flung himself backwards again as Gisei's katana cut the air in front of his eyes. The duelist defended desperately, trying to get the space he needed to regain his momentum, but nothing worked. The samurai-ko ignored his feints and batted his counterstrikes aside, once striking so hard he almost lost his katana. And always, always, she moved forward, driving him down the length of the room at a slow, unhurried pace. As he backed up Yamadori caught glimpses of the crowd--Junichiro's moon face showed the horrified surprise Yamadori was feeling, while Unako looked oddly serene.

Gisei had backed him the length of the dojo when it happened. A fast sideways cut, too fast, too hard, that pulled her sword too far out from her center and left her open. She shifted on her feet, trying to get her momentum back, but Yamadori's blade was already in motion. Bright red blood welled out of the slash on her arm, staining the pale blue of her sleeve. "Doji Yamadori, the victor," Nikkan intoned solemnly.

Yamadori blinked a little at the sudden end to the fight, but Gisei merely bowed to him, face expressionless, and then turned and walked towards the door of the dojo. Shigeyuki headed towards her, Master Otojiro trailing behind, and from another direction one of Hanoshi's healers rushed up to tend her arm.

Yamadori watched her go, trying to understand what he was feeling. He had defeated her, just like he and Unako had planned, but the duelist felt more disturbed than elated. It was surely only a reaction to the unexpected difficulty of his victory, but...blood red on Crane blue, a wound given by another Crane. 'Necessary', he insisted to himself.

His eyes sought out Unako in the thinning crowd, and found her staring after Gisei with an expression of annoyance on her face, as if the Daidoji woman had somehow done something wrong. The duelist was trying to think of what the problem could be when her eyes shifted towards him and she noticed him. Her face transformed into a radiant smile, and he found himself walking towards her, wanting to warm himself with her regard.

"Such a splendid duel," Unako greeted him. She turned to Junichiro and Nikkan, who still stood nearby. "Do you not agree, Junichiro-san?" Yamadori tensed a little--Junichiro's opinion was the whole point of the matter.

"Yamadori-san was clearly the victor," Junichiro said, and Yamadori relaxed. "As to the specifics of the duel, it is not for a courtier to speak on such things. Perhaps Nikkan-san could give us Niten's perspective."

Nikkan raised an eyebrow and smiled wryly, as if he found the situation amusing. "When drinking poison," he said quietly, "lick the bowl."

Yamadori could make no sense of the comment, but he could see by the spark that flared in the advisor's eyes that he did. "Thank you, Nikkan-san," he said, bowing. "That was most enlightening." He bowed to Unako and Yamadori. "I must go now and prepare for the story recital."

* * *

"Do you know why we are here?" Gisei asked him.

Yamadori looked around. They were in the indoor dojo, kneeling at a small table that had been placed in the center of the room. "Of course," he said.

"Drink," Unako said, placing a small blue-glazed bowl of colorless liquid in front of him. He picked up the bowl and drank, expecting water, and was startled to find it sickeningly sweet in his mouth and bitter in his throat. He set it down after a single swallow, repulsed.

"No," Gisei said, "like this." She picked up her bowl, identical to his, and drank it down. Then she carefully licked it clean.

Yamadori looked down at his bowl and saw that the liquid was now the color of blood. He picked it up and found himself holding his katana. "Do you know why we are here?" Gisei asked. They were standing on a wide, dark plain, its only features a bare and twisted tree on the horizon, a stormy sky above. She was dressed in white, and held her own katana.

"Of course," he said, and struck, aiming for the mon on her arm. She disappeared in a burst of feathers and blood, and when his vision cleared Yamadori saw a white crane climbing slowly into the sky, its feathers stained with red.

"Never mind," Unako said, turning towards him with a warm smile. "Next time." She reached for him, and changed....

* * *

Yamadori dashed up the steps of the dojo, wanting nothing more than to get within its walls and get a fire started in the brazier. He remembered the dream that woke him only vaguely, but it had disturbed him enough to send him out of Unako's bed and into the garden dojo, searching for the solace of the sword. The night was colder than he expected, though, and in his haste he entered the dojo and slid the door shut behind him before realizing that it was already occupied.

The Doji closed his eyes wearily at the sight of the woman and the yari she held in her hands. Gisei was second on the list of people he didn't want to talk to this morning, but if he left now it would look as if he were running away from her. After a moment he steeled himself and opened his eyes. The dojo was spacious, more than large enough to hold them both. He would move to the other end of the dojo and...the thought trailed off as he watched her.

Kakita had prescribed a thousand days of spear for those who would follow his path, and so all students of the Academy were taught its use. Yamadori recognized the kata Gisei was doing; he had done it himself, had seen his sensei and his fellow students do it, a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times. He had never seen it done the way she was doing it now. The Daidoji flowed through the darkness with quiet precision, each movement arising not out of rote memory but from some internal logic of grace. He stared at her, transfixed by the beauty she was drawing out of wood and steel.

She finished with her back towards him, and stood for a moment before speaking. "Thank you for your patience, Yamadori-san. I will leave now."

"No!" Yamadori said, wanting to watch her more. "No," he repeated, more quietly. He walked towards her, wondering what to say to make her stay, and why he cared. "I was taught that kata at the Academy. The Endless Wall of Steel is known for the strength and endurance it builds."

"The Endless Wall of Steel?" Gisei turned around and looked at him. "Is that what you call it?"

"What else would I call it?" he asked, confused.

"My sensei called it the Willow Upholds the Sky," she said, "and it teaches balance and precision."

"We were told completely different things!"

"Were we?" Gisei grounded the yari between her feet and leaned against it. "Is strength useful without balance?"

Yamadori thought back to their duel, to the wide, mistaken swing that had cost her the victory. "No," he said. Then, "We were closely matched. On another day you might have won."


Yamadori looked at her curiously. She had said it as a fact, not as a denial. "No, really, you are quite skilled."

She laughed a little and walked to the rack that held the pole arms. "There was nothing for me to gain by winning that duel."

He felt his temper rise at the implication of her words. "Nothing?" he said sharply. "Your honor? The honor of your family and school? Or is it true what the whispers say, and the Daidoji have no care for such things?"

Gisei paused and looked back at him. "Unako wanted a demonstration of Daidoji excellence. I showed her *restraint*." She lifted the yari and carefully placed it in its slot.

He had to breathe for a moment before he could speak. "And you think that you let me win? I am a master of the blade!"

"You'll become one in time, says Shigeyuki," Gisei said, walking back to him. "Should you live so long, says I." Yamadori opened his mouth to speak and she silenced him with a tilt of her head, locking his eyes with hers. He stood there a moment, lost in iron and darkness, and then his will broke and he found himself staring down at the floor.

"Good day, Yamadori-san," she said, and walked towards the door.

"It is a peasant's weapon," he ground out, looking for words that could hurt her. "It is something you give to ashigaru because they are too witless to master a sword."

"Tea," Gisei said quietly, "is dead leaves and water." She paused a moment, waiting for a reply he didn't have, and left.

He closed his eyes and hated her. Hated her, hated Unako, hated himself. He swam in his hate, letting it fill him and warm him, until he began to fear it. It was powerful, and hot, and it went on without ending...Yamadori reached for his duelist' training, trying to focus past his fury. To become one with the sword, Kakita said, required patience, perseverance, and humility. He faltered, and dropped back into hate. The duel replayed itself in his mind and he felt anew the terror of her assault. A shift of balance, a body offered to his blade. Red on blue. Lick the bowl. Like this.

Slowly, Yamadori walked across the dojo and with shaking hands lifted down a yari from the rack. He walked back to the center of the room and assumed his stance.