Way of the Crane

"They want me dead!" Kenshuko cried as she exclaimed her words, sadness and disappointment clung to her very being as she continued to speak. "Masurao, my own clan wants me dead! My family, my friends, everyone!" Since they were alone in their private quarters assigned them at Kosaten Shiro -a questionable honor, as it was simply a step up from imprisonment-, Kenshuko moved closer to Masurao for comfort.

Masurao clenched his jaw, he wanted to comfort Kenshuko, but he was forced to make her realize the truth, no matter how much it hurt her. When she stepped towards him he stepped back and said with solemn voice, "What did you expect, Kakita Kenshuko? Did you believe them to welcome you with open arms? You left them to find your father! You left your duties behind! Now they view you as you once viewed your father, they will want you to atone…"

Kenshuko sank onto her knees, her mind reeled and it felt as if she had been struck in the face. She sobbed and looked up at Masurao, but his face was hard and his eyes did not show their usual warmth, but only the heat of conviction. She knew he was right, they would want her to commit seppuku, if she was lucky.

"Then I will die," she uttered through her tears. "Let us go to the court then…"

* * *

Masurao and Kenshuko had travelled to Yufuke na Heigen Toshi by boat, but once they got there, Kenshuko was recognized by a magistrate and they were forced to go to Kosaten Shiro to see what would become of Kenshuko. Masurao wondered why they were not taken to the closeby Kyuden Doji, but he guessed the Crane did not want to disturb their Champion and that perhaps Kenshuko's home was in the same province as the Crossroads Castle.

As they made their way to court Kenshuko dried her tears, forced down her sobs and regained her stature. Masurao looked upon her and knew she was ready to meet her destiny. Kenshuko was more a woman than a girl now, hardened by her search for her father and the obstacles she had to overcome to find him.

* * *

A stern Daidoji magistrate announced to the court what who was before them after Masurao and Kenshuko had entered. "Kakita Kenshuko, daughter of Kakita Koshin, like him you have left behind your home, family and your clan, as well as your duties."

Masurao took a step forward and addressed the assembled court, "I would beg to differ, Crane-sama."

"And just who might you be?" asked an middle-aged courtier of the Kakita family.

"My name is Togashi Masurao, but what is important is that I have been granted the honor to speak for my daimyo, Togashi Hoshi, on Kenshuko-san's behalf. As you know she has been searching for her father and thus left her clan, but what you do not know is that after she found him, she traveled with me for quite some time. We've learned from each other and I've spoken to Hoshi-sama about this, he agrees that both our clans could benefit from a continued relation through members of our clans. He suggested that Kenshuko-san, like her father Koshin-san, should study under a Dragon sensei and he also suggested that sensei be me. Who would be a better student of the arts of the Dragon than the daughter of the Ni-Ken no Tsuru, a famous student of the Kakita school as well as the Mirumoto school?"

Kenshuko could not believe what Masurao was saying, he wasn't lying but twisted the truth to his advantage. And was he really speaking on Hoshi's behalf? Did the daimyo of the Dragon truly have an interest in… her? What Kenshuko could believe at that moment was that Masurao had been a courtier at Imperial Court, his voice was audible and confident, but not so confident as to sound bold. He stood before the men and women who wanted her dead as if he would fight them all to protect her. Kenshuko didn't doubt he would.

"The fact still remains," the Kakita courtier replied, "that we had received no word whatsoever from or about Kenshuko-san."

"Kenshuko-san and I were traveling, with little access to messengers and my daimyo was concerned with the weight of war only shortly after we had spoken."

A Doji stepped forward to respond and Masurao recognized him. He was Doji Senetsu, the youth he defeated during a tournament while he was still attending Imperial Court. Though barely past his gempukku then, he was an adult man now. Senetsu's voice now carried the weight of wisdom and experience, though his body still had the stance of a swordsman. "I am afraid, Masurao-san, that you will have to tell Hoshi-sama…"

"Nothing." Masurao cut off the Crane's words quite bluntly, but it had gotten him the desired effect. "If this matter does not come to a satisfactory conclusion, Hoshi-sama has assured me he would personally come here to hear the reasons for Kenshuko's death."

The courtiers looked at each other and some whispered behind their fans, could this be true? Could this girl's death rouse Hoshi-sama to descend from his mountains?

Senetsu kept his peaceful composure and simply replied, "I am sure that by then Kurohito-sama will be able to speak to Hoshi-sama and that he can explain the situation."

"Then I will claim my right to defend the honor of Kenshuko-san."

Kenshuko looked at Masurao with the same surprise and confusion as the other Crane did.

The wizened Kakita narrowed his eyes and said with controlled anger, "What makes you think you have such a right? Especially here, in the lands of the Crane?"

Masurao looked around and locked eyes with several individuals before saying, "Though you might not acknowledge it, I am still Kenshuko's sensei by word of my daimyo, she is under my protection and I have the right to defend her honor as if her mistakes were my own."

"What do you suggest then? A duel?" Senetsu asked, but just at the mention of the word 'duel' his eyes, spirit and chi lighted. "We can not readily allow you to commit seppuku. And since you're an ise zumi…"

"Are you still judging the books by their cover, Senetsu-san?" Masurao replied.

But before Senetsu could reply the aging Kakita exclaimed, his outburst acted just as much as his previous words., "A duel will not do! There are perhaps a hundred reasons that say Kenshuko must atone!"

"Then I shall duel a hundred men and women," was all Masurao said.

Again the courtiers look around and whispered amongst each other suspiciously, and though Kenshuko felt happy to have a friend as Masurao, she feared not even his skills would be able to save her.

"A bold statement to make, in the lands which the great swordmaster Kakita once called home," the Kakita said sternly. "Kakita, whose progeny and students still call this land home. A bold statement even if one is competent in the ways of 'niten'."

Masurao smiled and replied with an acted undertone of despair in his voice, "How can you speak to me of swordsmanship and the 'niten'-style, the philosophy of the Mirumoto, while you do not even give credit to your own philosophy of excellence? You would snuff out the light of this young woman's life, who has just begun to set the first true steps on the road to excellence? The journey of her life has only just begun in earnest and already you are willing to end it? Must not all journies begin with a single step and is not this step the hardest? Mistakes are easily made, especially when friends and loved ones are involved. Samurai are expected to put themselves above their feelings and emotions, but who can truly claim to have found excellence when he or she has no emotions? Does the artist not create his art with emotion? Does a poet not describe emotions, emotions he can only know by having them and feeling them? After all, are we anything else but men and women of flesh? Living beings that feel and care? We are samurai and yet we are not, this is the cruel paradox of life and we must find a careful balance on the thin line, the rope that is our journey through life. And who are we to say that mistakes should be punished? Did we not all make them when we are young? Mistakes help us to learn what is right and what is wrong, truly mistakes help us to learn how to live. Kenshuko-san has slipped from her life rope and fallen to the earth, but her rope was not that high, none of us started our lifes on ropes hung between mountain tops. Kenshuko-san is a true Crane and she strives towards excellence just as much as you, if not more. She sought to learn of her past, knowing that without a past one cannot claim a future. It was unfortunate that her father traveled far and wide before she found him in Dragon lands and it was unfortunate that the Dragon were embroiled in war, allowing no easy return to her home. Though it seems that the Fortunes had conspired against her, it was all just a twist of fate that turned out for the worse in Kenshuko-san's case. Can you truly bring yourselves to be responsible for the death of a young woman that did nothing wrong? Unless striving for excellence has become a crime."

After his words, the court went silent and many courtiers hid their faces behind their fans together with their emotions. Doji Senetsu smiled at Masurao, recalling who had told him before never to judge a book by its cover and to beware its contents. "You are right, Masurao-san, your words are full of truth and I can see how we came to misjudge Kenshuko-san's situation. We offer you our extended hospitality for as long as you want, I shall tell my lord of the mistake that has been made and…"

"No!" it was the Kakita courtier who screamed, but this time his anger was true. "The daughter of the Ni-Ken no Tsuru must die! Hitokan could not destroy Koshin directly, so we'll destroy him indirectly… through his daughter!" The Kakita's features melted away to reveal an unknown face. He reached in to his sleeves and drew two ninja-to, straight swords the size of wakizashi and jumped towards Kenshuko.

The Daidoji magistrate leapt in front of Kenshuko and tried to deflect the blades with his katana, but managed to defend against only one of his swords, the second cut through his throat and killed him.

The assembled courtiers screamed for the guards, who were just outside the doors, but somehow they failed to hear them and since the Daidoji was the only one carrying weapons they fled to all directions, as long as it was away from the ninja.

Kenshuko had put some room between the ninja and her, enough for Masurao to defend her. Without his swords, Masurao was forced to use other items to his and Kenshuko's defense. He pulled two closed fans from his obi and took a strange stance: his feet were about 4 feet apart, his legs bent almost to the point that his upper legs were leveled with his knees; he faced the ninja with his left side, his left arm was outstretched before him and his right arm arched high so his hand hung just about his head. In this stance he snapped open the fans and nodded at the ninja.

The ninja was close to bursting into laughter, he had seen many men do stupid and desperate things to defend themselves, but he had never seen anything like this. With a malicious smile the ninja ran towards the ise zumi and lunged at him with both swords in front of him.

Masurao sidestepped the attack and pushed the swords away from him with the fans, his right foot snapped forward to hit ninja and after it missed, Masurao jumped and spun around to kick his opponent with his left foot.

The ninja ducked the spin kick and twisted away from the monk, thinking to himself that this man was just using the fans as a distraction and recognizing the moves as a martial arts style. He jumped at Masurao and brought his left and right sword down in succession, pivoted and slashed upwards with both swords in succession, only to cut through air.

Masurao had closed his fans and dodged the downward slashes landing on his back to evade the upward slashes, he then kicked the ninja in the stomach with both legs, jumped on his feet again and opened his fans.

The ninja managed to roll on after he landed and was up on his feet immediately, without sparing any time he launched himself at Masurao again. He spun the sword in his left hand around and held so that the blade ran against his lower arm, when he reached Masurao he slashed with the left blade, thrust with the right and brought back the left blade in a stabbing motion.

Masurao was hardly surprised by the attack, it was on of the most simple in the 'niten'-style, he evaded the slash by bending backwards, caught the thrusting blade in one fan, snapped it shut and deflected the thrust away from his body, doing the same when the ninja stabbed with the left sword. He then twisted his wrists and the swords out of the ninja's grasp. Masurao dropped the fans holding the swords and thrust his hand with two oustretched fingers forward, hitting the man right between the ribs, he then force his fingers upwards, forcing all the air out of the ninja's lungs and crushing both his lungs and his heart.

The sudden loss of air and overwhelming pain prevented the ninja from doing anything else but dying. With his last breath he uttered, "There will be more." And to his dying senses Masurao replied, "I will be there."

* * *

After the body of ninja was taken away and the court cleaned out, things started to get back to normal. Masurao told the investigating magistrates that the ninja probably used some form of magic to keep noises from escaping the court chamber.

Masurao was enjoying some meditation in his chambers when Kenshuko came marching in. "We have to talk," she stated.

Masurao opened his eyes and nodded, "About what do you wish to talk Kenshuko-san? There are many matters we could…"

"Stop that!" Kenshuko exclaimed and Masurao knew what he feared might've happened: through saving her life, he could've estranged her entirely. "I want you to tell me, are all of those things you've said about you being my sensei and Hoshi-sama taking interest in my life or death true?"

"They are very much true, Kenshuko-chan."

"Do not 'Kenshuko-chan' me! Why didn't you tell me all of this before? Why did you not allow me the choice to willingly become your student? You are forcing this upon me, do you even realize this?"

"I very much do," Masurao said, his voice soothing and soft, "but I had my orders from Hoshi-sama. That and I don't want you to think of me as your superior, I want you to think of me as your friend and the sensei-student relationship does not fit that thought. If you officially want to be my student, I want you to learn life's lessons above all others, of course I can teach you swordsmanship and many other skills, but I do not want to be called sama, dono or sensei by someone I consider a close friend, someone like you. I do not want peasants to think of me as their superior, what would they think if they saw me with someone who addresses me as their superior? No, Kenshuko-san, as far as I am considered I am only your sensei in word, not in deed."

"So, what you mean is that if I want to become your student in word, but not in deed, I will have to leave my home and clan again?"

"Only if you want to, but this time you will not face any consequences similar to these. Besides, what is left for you here? The only man you can truly call your family is probably traveling through the Empire and if you'd choose to stay here, what would become of you? There is so much to see, some much to do: life can be found out there! If you stay here you'll experience something similar to it, but you will be continuously bound to your duties and you won't like most of them. Travel with me and then only in the end will you be called upon by your clansmen."

Kenshuko sighed and took a few moments to think on Masurao's words, though he talked like a courtier again, this time the words struck her as wholly true. "I do owe you my life, Masurao-kun," Kenshuko finally said with a smile.

"You, Kenshuko-chan, owe me nothing, as you've been the only true friend I've had in quite some time, saving your life is only a small thing compared to what you've done for me."

"What are you talking about? What have I ever done for you but making your life troublesome?"

"More than you'll ever now," Masurao laughed, "and I would prefer to call it 'making my life interesting."

"When do we leave?"

"When will be a good time?"



* * *

"Kenshuko-san! Masurao-san! Please wait for a moment."

Masurao and Kenshuko both looked back to see Doji Senetsu walking out of the gates of Kosaten Shiro. They halted and waited for him to reach them.

"Please, before you leave, I want to give something to you." He presented Kenshuko with a long item wrapped in silk. "I want you to have this, Kenshuko-san."

"But… but I can't accept your sword!"

"It is not my sword, Kenshuko-san, it is my father's and it was intended for my first child. He, however, died before I could give it to him, as did his mother. I… I never loved another woman and I believe that my father was your father's cousin, so please, accept it. It is one of the finest Kakita blades and I would be honored to give it to the companion of the only man who ever bested me in a duel."

Knowing that it would be an inappropriate time for etiquette Kenshuko accepted the sword with quiet reverence.

"And to you, Masurao-san, I give this." Senetsu presented Masurao with a simple bokken. "It was the bokken you used to defeat me," Senetsu said with a chuckle. "For some time I thought it was special somehow, magical perhaps. Then I realized it was only special because of its meaning to me, I had it magically strengthened and preserved, I have carried it with me whenever I felt I had need of silent support. It was you who drove me to strive further, to become better and better and to seek what I would have never sought otherwise. I thank you for giving me a purpose in my younger days."

"I am honored that I have been of such great influence to you, and I am honored to accept this special gift."

The three bowed to each other and as Masurao and Kenshuko started to walk away Senetsu said, "Before I forget Masurao-san, you should perhaps seek out Shoriko-san. She is currently with her husband at Kyuden Bayushi and I believe she has something she has wanted to give you for quite some time."

Masurao turned around and bowed in thanks again saying, "I will make sure to pay her a visit, thank you once more, Senetsu-san."

Senetsu smiled and then another afterthought came to him, "Oh, and her name is Bayushi Shoriko now!"

"Who is this Shoriko, sensei?" Kenshuko asked while smiling mischievously. "Another old friend of yours?"

"Indeed she is, you'll like her, I'd think. I hope you're prepared for the journey ahead. We're going to Kyuden Bayushi…"

[To be continued…]