The sound of swords clanging and a noble samurai's death would briefly disrupt time.
|Mid 1600's Japan
...past the township of Otawara
The sound of swords biting into each other and a noble samurai's death would for a moment disrupt the serene harmony of the imperial road high on the mountain before nightfall. This was for a dispute that had occurred over a decade earlier.
The quiet rustling of the berry bushes against the cool afternoon breeze was broken by the soft footsteps of the two travelers as they trudged uphill. Takemaru set the slow pace of the climb, even though he carried no bags, and the servant behind him lugged the weight of the travelling gear. He was a good master and never abused his authority over his employee.
At that time many claimed that he was the greatest Japanese sword teacher in the land. As such his status of samurai, he carried two swords at his side, his left hand light on the longer of the two swords, a fabled katana that served well all its masters in the many hundreds of years that had gone past since it was forged.
There was still a little way to go before they would reach the first of many inns until they reached the next town where Takemaru would impart some of his knowledge to eager students of the sword. He paused for a while and let the servant catch up to him, when the road flattened.
'We'll take it slow Shimozuki,' Takemaru said without turning his head. He didn't need to say anything, for they had been together since birth and understood each other better than brothers. However, he understood the value of praise.
Shimozuki grunted in response after he caught up to Takemaru. He was slow at speech among other things. The large bag strapped on his broad shoulders wasn't heavy, but the long climb had taken it's toll on his ageing legs and lungs. He pointed ahead towards a wooden rest bench that offered a breathtaking view out to the lush wooded lands afar, just before a small drop.
Takemaru's eyes followed the direction of Shimozuki's finger. He was puzzled, for the countless times they had been on the road, never once had Shimozuki asked for a rest break. His confusion was solved when he finally focused upon another samurai sitting cross legged under a large pine tree just before the bench. He smiled as he remembered a principle of his own teaching school – that even a true swordsman can only be as good as his worth. In this case, they had the sun at their back, and the samurai was wearing green, his stillness and the kimono's folds blended with the greenery behind him. So today, with his attention more at the journeys end, he wasn't really expecting anything out of the ordinary.
They would have to go past the samurai on their way. Takemaru's instinct told him that a confrontation was inevitable, he thumbed his katana as they approached, his sword arm itching for the unsheathing manoeuvre that would come almost without thought. Little did he know then that his own sword would not taste blood, at least that day.
The other samurai was cross-legged, eyes closed in meditation on the cushion of the dry pine leaves. The sound of their straw sandals crushing a patch of gravel alerted him of their presence and he locked eyes with Takemaru, completely ignoring Shimozuki whom he assessed as no threat.
Because the samurai focused only on Takemaru, Takemaru immediately understood that this meeting was no coincidence and paused almost in mid-step and gripped the katana handle.
'Everything is wrong here,' he thought.
Shimozuki, on the other hand froze at that instant. While most things were often beyond him, when it came to fighting, he was the able assistant a swordsman could wish.
Both were astonished at what happened next. So much so that Takemaru almost jumped back.
He lowered his face to the ground and bowed to Takemaru. It was a prolonged and sincere bow, his palms flat on his thighs. One which a subordinate would only perform upon in request for a great favour.
Takemaru cleared his throat and willed his body to return to calm. There was no danger here. For now though.
'Speak Samurai!' His order was fierce. This was the time to take charge and show who was the boss. The etiquette of nice conduct did not apply to potential enemies. He had already summarized that the person before him was not here to make friends and thus ought to be treated with nothing but contempt. 'I, Takemaru, sword teacher, demand to know your business.'
'I Inami, sword fighter formerly of the city of Edo, respectfully wish to deliver a message to you, Sir,' the reply came in a soft and humble voice, directed at the pine needles beneath, for he had not yet received permission to rise.
'Then be quick about it!'
Inami, according to protocol, eyes still downcast, removed removed his sheathed sword from his side and laid it beside him. He moved up slow, a powerful beast rising from fitful rest.
Takemaru noted that he was young, still in his early twenties. Inami was tall and handsome, and bore every indication of noble birth with his sharp features. He was dressed in new and fine clothes of upper class taste, but there was no other bag with him, which meant that he must have left his belongings somewhere else, and traveled light to this place. In another place Inami would have had the admiration of many young woman and been a fine catch. As it so happened, fate dictated that he live through harshest way of life with his head up high. What also interested Takemaru was that he did not carry two swords as was the norm of samurai. This most likely meant that he was a mercenary, and would borrow a short sword for whomever he was in the employ of, and return it when the term ran out.
Even though he was unarmed when he came close, Takemaru didn't let his guard down. Going unarmed to another samurai was prestige, it entrusted that the unarmed person had protection from someone greater than him or her. It was an ancient protocol reserved for few occasions. If Takemaru understood and appreciated this gesture, he kept his emotions hidden in a tight scowl. The less information he gave to an opposing combatant, the more strengthened his own position became.
Inami reached into the sleeve of his kimono and pulled out an old rolled parchment. He presented it to Takemaru with both hands He had not lifted his head once. Takemaru didn't have to take it, or open the parchment to know what it contained.
He didn't accept the parchment. There was no need to. His actions many years ago had finally caught up on him. But then, the inevitable confrontation still could be stopped. If only one person backed down. But it wouldn't be Takemaru.
'How is Kurama ?' the words escaped Takemaru's lips before he knew it.
When the parchment wasn't accepted, Inami broke his reverie and straightened his back. The message had been passed, and the piece of paper was now worthless. He had no use for it.
As if reading his mind, Takemaru's servant went forth and whisked it from his hands. It would serve well to light a fire in the future. After all, no one would dare litter on the imperial road, and even fewer would want to put anything to waste. If the servant saw Takemaru's nod of approval, he did not acknowledge it. Shimozuki was an extension of Takemaru, he was content with making his masters life easier and would never ask for anything more.
'Kurama passed on from this land of the living some years back,' Inami told him solemnly with undisguised sadness. 'He always maintained that he was at peace with the way things turned out.'
Takemaru nodded. 'Please walk with me. We are heading to the next bed and I have a strong desire to learn more about Kurama's story and his fate.'
'I stayed there last night,' Inami glanced at his katana lying where he was once sat.
'Shimozuki, please fetch the blade,' Takemaru requested and his servant dropped the bag he was carrying and scurried for it.
After Inami had the katana back at his side, they moved side by side in silence with Shimozuki trailing behind, faint footsteps behind to alert them of his presence. Inami had no reason to fear either, for it would be a dishonour if Takemaru attempted treachery. There was business to be conducted, but it was impolite to bring it up now.
'That katana . . . is it ?'
'Yes.' Inami answered. Just before the silence between them grew awkward, he added more. 'When you publicly decreed that our school did not teach the true way of the samurai conduct, my master Kurama was very saddened. He explained to all of us students that what we learnt was for the new Japan, that because there was less fighting, samurai had to keep to their core values, but adapt to the new way of life, so as to serve the imperial court and people better. And this was why we had to be educated in other things besides martial arts. Of course the students all rallied for him, but in the end he took just me and closed the school down. When he died, all he had was his katana, which you see by my side, and what he imparted to me.'
'I much respected Kurama.'
'And he you. But till his dying day, he could not fathom why you called out his school.'
'I stand by why I did. Kurama produced students who called themselves samurai, but had never completely mastered their sword, or wanted to travel the land to discover their own unique way of honouring the samurai's code. I would have kept my thoughts to myself, had not the imperial court chosen to employ every student from Kurama's school.'
'And that is where my master and you were at odds. I know this. You claim among other things that personal hardship and discovery would bring forth the character of a samurai. And my master insisted that there was time enough for that later, what was needed today was someone with the skills needed to better cope with the task before him...'
'And yet who is right ?'
Inami sighed. He, himself did not know.
'So...tell me. What about you ?' Takemaru waved his arm out.
'Me ? There isn't much to tell about myself. Except that I am here,' Inami cast his eyes down.
Takemaru liked the young man next to him. There was something special about him that differentiated him from others.
'Everything about you. You carry your master's sword, one I have never seen Kurama without. There must be something you can tell me ?'
'I'm an orphan. As you know, Kurama opened the doors to his school to almost anyone. So here I was a child living in the street, who wandered into one of his classrooms and he asked me to stay. And I stayed. I wasn't the only one from the streets, there were many. Some from places much worse.'
'And then ?'
'I don't understand...'
'I mean why did you stay with Kurama when he closed his school down. I heard that all of the students were taken in care by the imperial court.'
'Oh...yes. I chose not to go with the imperial court. From what I heard, my fellow students have all prospered in some way or another. I also know that you have provided guidance to many of them. My master followed their progress with great happiness, through the correspondence of officials he had befriended by his school.'
'That is good.'
'My master had all our futures assured before he closed the school down, but I begged him to be allowed to follow him. He finally agreed, at last moment, as he closed the gates for the last time.'
'We went to a village of one of his former students, where he gave me personal training. Then when he passed on, I wandered the land, providing my sword arm for a month or more, here and there for food and lodging, all the while learning about myself. And also, when I heard that you were fighting a bout, I would come in and watch you fight if I could. I have seen you fight in all of the last six challenges, and several more when my master died.'
'Ahh. You must have blended in well with the spectators. But then again, I only focus on my opponent. Tell me – what do you think ?'
'You took several classes of ours on the Iron Lotus style. It is, in my opinion, a formidable style...'
'The only style I use...but yes. The years have not been kind to my memory else I would have remembered you. I would, when I could help Kurama's school with my skills. We debated many times about our differences of opinion, but then we were never at odds to any other thing. Do continue though.'
'I used the Iron Lotus style, and studied it and wet my katana with the blood of many an enemy of my former employers, all within the samurai's code, as I interpreted.'
'And what do you think of the Iron Lotus style ?'
'Like you, it's all I know, but never in combat did I doubt in either myself or my sword.'
'Very good. You seem to have done well for yourself.'
'Many of my employers requested that I stay for longer. They were generous in gifts, but I would always drop off the excess at the next monastery or temple.' There was pride in Inami's voice, and even Takemaru could help feel the same way.
There was a faint thump thump sound of a woodcutter at work not far ahead. They both listened to it in silence. The time for business talk was nearing.
'What do you have before you now ?' There. That was it. Takemaru had thrown down the gauntlet.
And as he had rehearsed the answer every day for many years, Inami answered without emotion or hesitation. 'I want to reopen my masters former school.'
Takemaru knew the answer wouldn't be easy. 'The school will be popular again if you do get the opportunity,' he said. 'Even now they talk fondly of the place. The imperial court even has the former students now training new entrants. As before, I give my services and assistance when I can – if to guide them to the true way. Kurama's memories live on.'
'The memories live on, but the one scorch mark does as well.'
'I will not retract my stance,' Takemaru stiffened with a cold air.
'I have no choice then, but call you out then. In your missive, you criticized our school, my master's style of teaching. You offered a duel to refute your missive. My master didn't accept. But he didn't ignore it either. Such was his respect for you. And had he accepted your duel, he knew that his students would all challenge you should things not turn out my masters way. You, would, by your own code in turn accept the challenges and a blood bath would occur. For none of the students will accept less then death, even though they had no chance against your skill.'
'What about your skill Inami ? Will blood be spilled ?'
'I studied you, and your duels. I have fought and won. But my spirit cannot rest until the school is reopened. My master never knew of my ultimate desire, but he trained me as you yourself would have a samurai learn – through the trials of the world as opposed to in a sealed school in the city. Give me a time and place. I challenge you!'
Takemaru was quiet for a while, his cool matched by Inami.
'What do you know of the Iron Lotus style ?' he ventured.
'I have come against it many times,' Inami answered. 'To learn it, one must learn how the untrained fight, and then progress to the next level. It is impossible to be a master, but possible to be very good.'
'But what about you ? Are you good ?'
'I am ready.'
'That is not what I asked. But then again, if you asked me if I was good, I would also say that I was merely ready.' Takemaru laughed, causing a faint smile in the more serious face of Inami's. 'It always is a good match. Iron Lotus against Iron Lotus.'
Inami didn't answer to that. He was lost in his thoughts. Everything he lived his life for, depended on this moment.
'Very well,' Takemaru barked. 'I accept your challenge, but with one condition. If I fall, you must take care of my servant Shimozuki well by going to Edo with him to my residence. I have other servants there who will take him in and they will know what to do. Would you do that for me if the need arose ?'
'It is a small price. I will do that if I had to.'
'And when would a bout suit you ?'
'As I said, it is your choice. I am prepared to fight you right now if I have to.'
'Well...there is a clearing just before the inn if I remember correctly. Lets do it there then. But what of you ? If things don't go your way ?'
'Leave me as I lie. If wild animals have use for my body, it is of some use. And if someone finds my body, then perhaps the cost of what I wear will cover the expense of my burial. Either way, my body matters not, but what I did.'
Takemaru laughed. 'And my servant will know what to do with my body then.'
They headed to the place without saying anything more. The time used, to prepare themselves mentally for the fight. It wasn't far.
The clearing was in an isolated area, surrounded by thick trees with a small track running to the side where the locals would have access to the plenty firewood the forest provided.
Takemaru made his way to one end, bowed and pulled his katana out. Inami did likewise. Both savoured the serenity the place provided for a breathe before closing in on other each other. The servant moved to the edge of the clearing, and waited, almost invisible.
The Iron Lotus style favoured close combat.
Inami knew this. He had the advantage of youth and watched Takemaru fight many times. Takemaru always fought defensive with patience and he conserved his energy. Always looking for a mistake from an opponent he could exploit. This was the Iron Lotus' key strength. Bouts where both fighters used this style could go for days if they were evenly matched.
Inami held his katana with both hands high up at his side, mirroring Takemaru's movements. He respected the carefree old man before him.
Takemaru's face twisted into a madman's. He shrieked. Spittle rolled down from his mouth. His eyes darted everywhere.
And then Takemaru was slamming his katana at Inami who did everything to block the cuts coming his way. This wasn't the graceful fighting of sword masters before an audience, this was something else.
Before Inami could come to his senses, Takemaru did something else that decided the course of the fight. Takemaru flung his own katana directly in Inami face, hilt first. Inami closed his eyes out of reflex at that one instant and Takemaru grabbed Inami's katana.
Before Inami realised what happened, he found his own katana buried in his abdomen. Takamaru had taken two steps back and was surveying his handiwork with what appeared a disinterested look. His servant appeared out of nowhere and used a towel to quickly wipe his face.
Takemaru pointed to Inami who shook his head slowly. The wound was fatal. What the old master meant was, 'Do you want to be finished off quickly ?'
Inami wanted to think why things had gone wrong. Too much had happened too fast. He doubted he could solve the puzzle with the little time he had left now.
With nothing else left to be said the old master and his servant quietly left the scene.
Inami waited until he was sure they had gone before he dared to take even one step. He knew by now that as long as the sword stayed in his body, he could prolong his life for some time, but still he wouldn't last long.
The organ in his body knew that something foreign had embedded it. But so far, the organ hadn't been called to perform it's function. When
that time came, Inami hoped he would go painlessly.
He made his way outside the clearing and seated himself on patch of moist ground amongst some large roots. His clothes still hadn't had a drop of blood, but caught dirt. It was here he would die, but before that, he hoped he had time enough to analyse the bout.
There was some scuffling sound close by. Inami didn't bother look around. 'It's either an animal, or a demon come to collect from me,' he thought without any fear.
It was a man, a local villager whom Inami had seen previously when he stayed at the inn where Takemaru and his servant were heading off to right now. The man had a big grin on his face, he was of the type who was always smiling with his teeth showing, who had spent his whole life working outdoors. Today he was a woodcutter who had witnessed the bout from a hidden point some place.
Inami didn't have strength to move his head, so the woodcutter came before him and squatted down.
It was obvious, when Inami died, the woodcutter would take anything of value from his dead person and use it for his means. Nothing mattered. The choice Inami made was his own, this was the result.
'That's where I went wrong,' he flinched as his analysis was complete and the woodcutter jerked back, for Inami still had the element of a final surprise attack in him. 'I had every chance to win the fight. From the first blow. But I was stupid, I got confused. There were so many times I could have finished him off. Takemaru fought like an amateur, I had not planned for the fight in my mind to go like that. What I thought would happen was that the fight would be like every fight I had witnessed, or heard of by him. Takemaru fought for his life with me, because that's all the chance he had with me. If he fought like a master, he would have lost.'
The woodcutter scratched his nose, a very disgusting behaviour, but it expressed his impatience.
Inami left the world with his eyes closed.
His name was Ishikawa. He was a local labourer who just barely made a living doing the odd job. Today was lucky for him. The sight of a soulless body did not scare him, for he had many times dug graves and assisted in burials as necessary.
The sword in the samurai was worth a fortune.
'I will keep it hidden for half a year,' he decided. 'Then I will sell it quietly for a fraction of it's worth to a stranger in another town. Someone who won't find me again. I have to be careful for I don't know what this is all about, but it is above my head, and not worth my head either.'