The Gozoku
Chapter Thirty-Two: The Steel Demon

"Once you have overcome the spirit of the opponent, their weaknesses come to light and one is placed in a position of power."
- Kakita's "Ken"


At the moment that the two swords collided the samurai knew more of one another than had passed between them in all the moments before. Mochiko felt the hidden strength, the inner finesse and control of her opponent, even as Usan's slender arms sensed the focused power of his foe. In a breath the two had collided and divided, exchanging positions almost unnoticeably, staring back at one another over upraised swords.

"You are a person that has fought in many battles," Usan said brightly, his soft face creating a gentle smile as he stared unchallenging into Mochiko's eyes. "I can tell that you have killed many samurai, and done it skillfully."

"However," he added coldly, a serious expression flittering over that feminine face, "you have no chance against me."

A single crack resounded through the silence; a lonely nick on the edge of Mochiko's sword. Usan smiled, placing one hand on his hip and looking up at the ronin.

For her part, the older woman said nothing, adjusting her stance to better face the enemy before her. As her katana settled into a low, extended forward stance the Crane sighed heavily, one pale hand calmly raising his own sword.

"You are not going to win this fight," he said evenly, using a tone more suited for a petulant child than an opponent in a lethal duel. "It is not a matter of courage…"

Blades clashed, forms melted and changed. Katai kept her eyes always on the Doji, but in a flourish Usan had driven Mochiko backwards, once more nicking her plain-bladed sword edge and effortlessly dodging away.

"It is just a matter of quality."

Mochiko sneered, sheathing her weapon and pivoting her hips. Usan's large green eyes glinted approvingly, but the Crane said nothing as he sheathing his own sword. "Do you think that a word like 'quality' is something that could deter a true samurai?" the ronin demanded of him.

One attack flashed in answer, punctuated by a simple, "Not at all."

* * *

Like every duel, there was a fury of motion, shocking the surrounding observers into silence, daring Katai to challenge the speed with her eyes. As the samurai-ko held her breath, she glimpsed two separate marks of what had passed between the warriors…

Blood touched the ground from Mochiko's forearm, and in her hands the ronin gripped a shattered sword.

"You see what I meant about quality," the Crane commented rather bluntly, sheathing his sword and starting away. "When you find a proper weapon, I hope that we can fight again…"

Katai turned back to the older woman, but Mochiko was in motion before she could speak. Sheathing her broken katana, the former Matsu seized hold of handle and saya in both hands like a wicked club. Usan heard the sound, but he turned a little too late…

The assembled ronin cringed in sympathy as a resounding crack burst from between the saya of the ronin and the face of the slender Crane.

Amazingly, Doji Usan did not crash to the ground from the strike against him, though Katai saw blood dripping from his smooth, thin lips. Glancing up from beneath long bangs of brown hair his green eyes seemed genuinely insulted. "You hit me…"

"Don't drop your guard before the duel is over!" Mochiko barked at him, leveling her makeshift weapon ferociously and tossing her kiseru to the ground. "Sword or no sword, we fight here and now!"

For the first time, the delicate little Crane seemed genuinely angry, his composure burning away for a moment as a dribble of his blood struck the ground. "It seems that you need a lesson, you old spinster," he chirped mockingly as he removed the blue shirt that hung over his shoulders and folded it carefully.

"And this time I won't aim for just your pathetic sword."

"Come on then," the ronin challenged, and for the first time in years Katai saw her boss fully focusing on the fight. The samurai-ko sighed and settled back for what seemed to be an inevitable battle; beside her, some of the others started to discuss odds in whispered tones.

"…really good, to break her sword like that."

"Don't be stupid, he's weak as…"

"But what he did to Utemaro…"

"…too old to fight this guy…"

"Shut up, all of you," the ronin commanded, silencing the others but meeting several challenging glares. Katai simply turned back to the pair with a serious expression, "If you keep talking your going to miss it when they get started again."

"And I wouldn't worry about Mochiko, either," she said with a small smile. "I haven't seen her this ready to fight in years."

You are an interesting man, Doji Usan, she commented silently. To get Mochiko back into such a frenzy, I almost hope that you live.

* * *

He did not move like a Kakita swordsman, and with each motion Mochiko found herself outmaneuvered or dodged outright. Charging and slashing Mochiko felt her sheath swipe the edge of her enemy several times in each disjointed melee, but each pass was becoming like the last one…Usan neither advanced nor retreated, but instead just parried and danced away from the arc of her sword.

Off to one side Katai and the others watched in silence, none of them saying anything as the Crane landed lightly from his last leap. Mochiko thought that a few of them were starting to read into the fight poorly; she cursed softly as Usan's large eyes regarded her innocently.

"Fight me, you damn coward. I have no time to chase you all day."

But the man did not respond to her goading; indeed he stifled a yawn with his free hand before speaking, as calm as if he was speaking with his own mother. "I do not think it is right to fight you in earnest," he explained slowly, as if she was simple or touched in the head.

"It's not in my nature to kill old ladies with broken swords."

When she would think about this later, Mochiko would admit that she was a fool to have been tempted into a charge.

She had almost closed the distance when Usan was no longer before her, and Mochiko's saya smashed the ground as the Crane leapt up as if on wings. Fighting the sunlight, the older woman's blade rushed up to parry, matching the Kakita steel with saya, sageo and steel beneath. The ronin felt her weapon shudder anew as Usan slashed down through it…

His blow fell unimpeded, slowed only by the slightest fraction by her strike. Mochiko retreated, feeling her kimono open at one side. The Crane struck the ground hard, his blade twisted back behind him, but there was only a momentary slowing of that whirling sword.

Like a punch, Usan thrust the butt of his weapon hard into Mochiko's stomach, knocking her backwards and almost making her fall. Reversing the motion, the Crane sheathed his katana was a loud finality, daring further action with a little mocking grin.

"You really meant to kill me with that, didn't you?" he chirped respectfully, nodded to the remnant still clutched tightly in Mochiko's hand. "You really don't hold anything back…"

"Who are you?" Mochiko demanded, ignoring Katai's approach as the rest of the bushi moved to surround the younger man again.

"Just a samurai," he replied to her, retrieving his bright blue kimono and wafting it onto his narrow shoulders again. "I don't know who you are, but you should really give up your bandit ways. You are getting old, friend, and not everyone you attack is going to be so forgiving."

Mochiko imagined that the look on her face must have been priceless, given the chuckles that she immediately received. Katai bowed slightly to the slender Crane, her voice falling back into more proper etiquette. "We do apologize, Usan-sama. We thought that you were a threat to us; now we understand that is not the case."

One rude glance told the other woman they would have words over the statement, but for his part Usan just smiled at the flattery and bowed a small bow. As they watched him continue north, towards the roads that led to Shiro Matsu, Katai offered Mochiko a glance as the older woman gnashed her pipe in annoyance.

"He really was a strong swordsman…do you think that he is one of them?"

"Don't know, don't care," Mochiko replied with a growl. "I need a drink before I bother thinking about such things…and get me a better sword!"

You got under her skin, Doji Usan, Katai commented as she watched Mochiko storm back towards the deeper forest. I thank you for that.

* * *

In the shadows that hung around Otosan Uchi, a hundred shadows moved. Rooms were cleared and checked for spies and courtiers; all meaningless in the home of the Emperor, but despite that every single thing was still done. In the darkness of the gardens that shadows gathered to their master, each bowing their head in reverent silence before the eyes of their lord.

"All has been prepared, Norihisa-sama."

The Shosuro daimyo nodded, an unreadable expression reflected upon the shinobi from his black eyes. "Return to your missions, then," he commanded quietly.

"They come with the dawn."

The Longest Night…