The times and trials of a simple samurai of the Sparrow Clan.
The First Lesson
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
1168, Month of the Rooster
“Another story, Sensei?” a child’s voice asked. Suzume Kenta tilted his head towards the sound. The blindfold hindered his sight, but he could recognize the voice as one of grandmother’s littlest students. He smiled, continuing his kata, the wooden bokken gripped tightly. Even while occupied by her youngest students, he knew his grandmother was watching him.
“Why not?” she replied. There was a scuffling; Kenta pictured her many students scrambling for their seats, their restless energy transformed into rapt attention. As he practiced his form, he recalled a time when grandmother was younger, and it was he who eagerly requested her stories. It did not seem that long ago. In the darkness of the blindfold, he pictured himself among them.
The students grew silent. He paused, listening. He should be too old for tales told to beginners, he knew, but then he was a Sparrow and stories were his lifeblood.
As his grandmother spoke, her oaken voice, well-accustomed to spinning tales, drifted over the heads of her students, reaching out for her grandson. He rose and fell quietly, bokken stirring the air with purposeful movements, and her tale spun with him.
“When the valley was new,” she said, “there were only two young sparrows throughout all of the forested hills. One day, the sparrows both heard a terrible noise, like the growling of a hungry beast! It was like nothing they’d ever heard before. The first one said, ‘How curious! I wonder what that is?’ And he paused to be sure of what he’d heard.” Her voice rose to a squeak when she spoke for the sparrow, and the children giggled. “The second one,” his grandmother continued, “simply flew away!”
Even at this distance, he could hear the abrupt rustle of her kimono sleeves, and he knew that she’d fluttered her hands in an imitation of the sparrow’s flight. He planted a step and crouched down, tucking one knee behind the other, laying the bokken-blade flat against the ground. The giggling of the children grew silent and hushed. In his mind’s eye, Kenta could picture his grandmother placing a finger before her lips.
“Of the two sparrows, from which one are all the others descended?”
The children replied in a chiming chorus. “The one who flew away!”
At once, Kenta felt a tightening in his chest, the hairs on his neck stranding straight. He sprung up without hesitation, uncoiling his legs and bringing his bokken up in an abrupt strike. He felt the weight of a thrown object against the dull blade, heard it splinter and felt it break. He identified it as a hollow wicker ball, no doubt thrown by the old woman. Still blindfolded, he followed through with a step and thrust, guiding the tip of his wooden sword to the chest of a phantom assailant. He was at once bombarded with panicked laughter, lifting away like a retreating cloud of birds.
Kenta smiled as he pulled the blindfold away. The world shifted into focus: the children were laughing and running in circles, scattered by his step, as though he would give chase. His grandmother, his Sensei, laughed with twinkling eyes, encouraging them with a broad wave. “Fly away, little ones,” she said, and they obliged, vanishing within the old wooden dojo.
Tucking her arms into her sleeves, she approached her grandson with ancient grace. He bowed his head low as she stepped from the front steps of the dojo, moving on bare feet to the wild grasses of the nearby gardens. For an old woman, far beyond the age of head-shaving, Kenta’s grandmother still possessed a warrior’s grace. “When you were that small,” she said, “that story was new to you.” She cast him under her Sensei-eye. “Now that you are an adult, what is the lesson?”
He answered at once. “The sparrow that flew away trusted his instincts. He acted without hesitation. He did not doubt his perception of danger, as the other one did. Thus he survived.”
“Very good,” she replied, nodding. “What is this called in our school?”
“It is called Haragei, Sensei. To trust one’s belly, to allow one’s instincts to warn one of danger. It is the first lesson of the Suzume School of Swordmanship, to be as the sparrow. To recognize danger by instinct, to perceive an action before it has occurred, and to act without hesitation.”
Her smile was approving. “The sparrow is patient and learns the ways of his enemy, but when he senses danger he does not wait. He acts. You have learned this lesson and more,” she said, her pride evident, “your parents smile upon you from Yomi. They will again in three days when you pass your final tests. Then, grandson, you will be a samurai.”
Kenta felt his chest swell with pride. Reverently he raised his head, so that his grandmother, his Sensei, could see his sincerity. “I will not fail you,” he promised, “I will protect the Sparrow, Sensei. I will guard these lands, as my father did. I will always be vigilant. I swear this,” his eyes gleamed with the hope and promise that came with youth, “I will bring honor to our household. You will be proud of me.”
The old woman looked away. The wind stirred, scattering dead leaves with a low rustle. A distant sound of thunder gently shook the darkening sky, and her face darkened with it. Her wrinkled skin was the bark of a dying oak. Her eyes dimmed, as if the breeze flickered their light like a candle’s flame. She stared towards a horizon slowly clouding over, standing, finally old as her soul, in the shadow of a looming sky. Kenta felt a rock form in the pit of his stomach. He had never seen her in this light before.
“Always remember the first lesson,” she whispered to him. “So much depends upon it.”
Kenta clenched his jaw with eyes downturned, leaning against the brush of the cold wind. He watched as it tossed dry and cracked leaves helplessly into the waiting strings of a spider’s web.
* * * * *
1171, Month of the Horse
It wasn’t until two years before his Gempukku that Kenta finally learned what the word “goshi” meant. He’d heard of it, of course, but had never seen the kanji, never learned the definition. He only knew that it was the sound of a scrubbing motion. He’d heard his mother say it many times when he was little, especially before dinner. “Goshi-goshi!” she would say, gesturing to the brush, “We scrub our fingernails before we eat satoimo!”
“But mother,” he would say, “everyone’s fingernails are dirty!” And it was true. He didn’t know anyone who had clean fingernails, not in the entire valley, samurai and farmer alike. His own father’s fingernails were forever dark at the tips, blackened from a lifetime of work. The nails of his grandmother, 9th Dan and O-Sensei of the Suzume Dojo, were even darker than that.
Every Sparrow had dirt beneath their fingernails. It was simply a fact of life; in the Suzume Hills, it was impossible to avoid. The valley that snaked between the hills offered many opportunities to become dirty. The Sparrow were poor and worked for their meals, made their own tools, chopped their own timber, and even built their own huts and fences, stoically repairing them every day after common bouts of fickle weather. One could not do these things and maintain clean fingernails.
As a child Kenta accepted this truth, even if his mother could not. Even so, he scrubbed his fingernails at her behest, knowing full well that they would be dirty again within minutes. With freshly-scrubbed fingernails, he would sit beside his beloved grandmother and happily eat the day’s stewed satoimo roots.
Outsiders did not eat roots. He learned that in his thirteenth year when an embassy of five Crane diplomats visited his grandmother’s dojo. They were guests of honor in Sparrow lands; the oldest one, a shugenja with long white hair and a wrinkled face, sat beside his grandmother and smiled often. Kenta relinquished his seat to a young Suzume woman with the good fortune of a Doji’s courtly training. She was more like them than her own people; her speech had lost the farmer’s dialect, becoming like one from the city. Her nails were clean, her kimono bright with vibrant silk, not the dull burlap of her kin. The others sat at the most important seats, almost shining, perfumed and pleasant smells rising from their bodies. They were kind and polite, perhaps the most courteous guests that the dojo had hosted in ages. But they didn’t eat the roots. When dinner was over, the servants took away clay dishes still heavy with dashi-stewed tubers.
There was a joke amongst the older students of the dojo: The Crane farmers didn’t toil on their land, they simply asked for the crops to grow and they sprung from the earth like magic. If they requested fruit from the trees, plums would fall from willing branches.
Life was not like that in the lands of the Sparrow. The Suzume were caught between extremes, so they had to live lives of balance. Their were lands both cracked and flooded, containing both dry plains and forested marshes. The hills were selfish, keeping their bounty to themselves, swallowing both seeds and water and offering nothing in return. The Suzume had to dig, dirtying their fingernails, prying deep fruits from the earth’s grip. Satoimo, yams, and other roots were the most successful crops, the only food that grew easily within the valley. But samurai of the Great Clans would not eat them. Throughout the Empire, roots of any kind were a farmer’s food.
That was the day that he learned the meaning of the word “goshi.” He heard one of the Crane whisper it to his kin, when he thought none were listening. Kenta did not understand until he reported it to the older students of his grandmother’s dojo, who had commanded him to do so.
They told him that he was a goshi. Indeed, all Suzume were goshi. The word meant “a samurai from the country,” or more specifically, “farmer-samurai.” These Crane were “saigo,” “city-samurai,” like most outsiders. But there was more to it than simply that. “Goshi-goshi” meant “to scrub,” and only farmers, only goshi, ever had to do that. Saigo never scrubbed their fingernails. They never got dirty.
It occurred to him, briefly, that this reality should perhaps upset him. Yet in truth, it didn’t bother him in the slightest. So he was a goshi. So he ate satoimo. So there was dirt beneath his fingernails. What did it matter? These were not sources of shame. No, the life of a Sparrow was one of honorable poverty.
In fact, he was proud to be a Sparrow. It was the part of him that he was most proud of. Even more than his swiftness with the sword, than the quiet of his steps, the way he could pass through the marsh without a trace, even more than his ability to remain still until a deer walked into the path of his arrow. He had no shame in his heart for who he was. He was one with the hills and their hidden dangers, one with the dirt and the dust. He was a Sparrow, a true Suzume, and he didn’t require the approving nod of any Great Clan samurai.
And of course, he wasn’t alone. He had said those exact things to the older students, and when they agreed, he knew that he’d passed some kind of unspoken test. Since that day they treated him a little bit kinder, his chores seemed slightly easier, and his grandmother’s assistant instructor was a little more lenient. Somehow, he’d found his way into a sort of club existing within the students of the dojo, one that no one named, no one spoke of, but everyone seemed to know existed. Students that he’d never talked to before suddenly knew him by name, and everywhere he went, the shopkeepers were smiling at him, and even the guards on duty answered his happy morning greetings.
Within the week, everyone knew of little Kenta, grandson of the 9th Dan Sensei. By the time he’d reached his gempukku, he knew everyone in the village by name. Including, of course, the young servant girl Miki, who had just laid a plate of stewed tubers on the table before him and refilled his teacup.
Kenta smiled at her as she broke his reverie, lowering his head in a display of gratitude. The young girl blushed as she returned the bow, hurrying off to another table that required her attention. Whenever he came to the Content Rabbit, Kenta always found himself musing on old times, and today, it seemed, was no exception.
He lifted his chopsticks and whispered a prayer of thanks before beginning his meal. The best roots were the Content Rabbit’s, of that there was no question. He knew the owner well, and had helped him to patch his roof not too long ago. After a few bites, he glanced across the small table at his companion, noticing that her lunch, so far, was untouched.
“Aika?” he addressed her around a puffed cheek of yam, “You’re not eating.”
“Mmm,” came her reply. Her was head tilted down. The long bangs of her practical haircut obscured her face.
He grinned playfully. “Did you already eat on The Watch? Your gunso is that generous?”
“Mmm,” she said.
“Hey!” Kenta tapped her plate with his chopsticks, which rang sharply. She startled, snapping to attention and staring up at him with wide brown eyes, sustaining this reaction for a few moments before finally frowning.
“Did I wake you up?” he asked.
“Sorry,” she said plainly. It wasn’t a convincing apology. He knew this expression, the purposefully plain gaze, straight mouth, and tucked chin. She was in no playing mood. Which meant, he decided, that something was bothering her. He maintained his gaze even as she turned her face back towards her plate. She lifted the chopsticks and settled them into position, but even then she did not eat. She just held them.
He leaned forward a bit. “Something’s chewing on your mind?”
“That’s very rude,” she replied softly.
“What?” He made a boyish grin. “A friend can’t express his concern? You’ve been burning thoughts into those carrots with your staring, and you haven’t said a word since you sat down. That is especially alarming behavior from the woman whose stories once put old man Hashi’s oxen to sleep.” She offered not so much as a smirk. “Aika,” he let his playfulness melt and a hint of genuine concern show through, “what is bothering you? What is wrong?”
She opened her mouth and drew a breath, as if to speak. But then she bit off her reply and looked away. “It is nothing,” she said. Which was, of course, the proper response, but not between friends.
So he coaxed her. He knew that she would eventually give in if he pushed enough, and he had a weakness for secrets. “How long have we been friends?”
She hesitated. “Since we were children,” she finally said. “Perhaps before that.”
“Do you feel that you cannot burden me with your thoughts? After all this time?”
Guilt was the way to go at it. He sensed her weakening. Even so, she fixed him with a glare. “Perhaps I am protecting you,” she asserted. “Perhaps I am keeping you from something that could do you harm.”
He offered that boyish smile. “A heroic gesture, Aika-chan, but do not shoulder this burden alone. I offer you that which all friends commonly offer. Even if I cannot help, you will feel better if you let it out. Please. What troubles you?”
He expected a little more resistance, but all walls came crashing down. Her expression transformed suddenly, her eyes growing wide. She leaned forward, her voice almost a whisper. “Something’s changed in the valley,” she said. “Haven’t you noticed?”
Not what he was expecting. “Changed? In what way? The valley seems as it always is…”
“I mean…” Aika quieted as the door to the teahouse opened, and three men in brown kimonos walked within. They made their way to a secluded table in a corner of the room, tended to immediately by young Miki. Aika stared at them the entire way. “…The people,” she finally said. She was whispering now. “The people have changed.” Her eyes pulled away from the newcomers across the room and locked onto his. “They’re different.”
Kenta shifted in his seat, trying not to let his thoughts show. He had heard something to this effect before from other samurai who served on The Watch. Countless hours, day and night, staring into the Golden Sun Plain, constantly watching for any sign of movement, always anticipating a cause for action, fulfilling the ancestral duty given to the Sparrow by the Scion of Heaven to ensure that no mortal disturbed those sacred lands. It was enough to make anyone paranoid. More than one of these samurai had mumbled something about the change of the valley, and more than one had been re-assigned to other duties, likely to lessen their paranoia. Perhaps Kenta’s grandfather had been right, and the stock of the new generation simply wasn’t as strong as the old ones.
Aika lessened the intensity of her look, biting her lip. “You think I am imagining things.”
Kenta shook his head. “I think, perhaps, you have spent much time in your duties. I believe-”
Without warning, Aika seized Kenta’s wrist, her arm snapping across the table faster than he could react. His speech halted in surprise. She was staring at the men again. “Look,” she hissed, “Look at them!”
Pulling his wrist free, Kenta stole a glance. They were an ordinary group of Sparrow samurai. They ate casually, laughed and joked, keeping their conversation quiet enough not to disturb anyone. Nothing unusual at all about them. He looked to his friend, confused and concerned. She didn’t look back at him.
“See?” she insisted.
“See what?” he whispered back.
She frowned. “You know everyone in the village, right? Those men… have you ever seen them before?”
It occurred to him that, in fact, he had not. Still, what did that matter? There could be many reasons why he wouldn’t know them.
She didn’t wait for a reply. Her eyes darted back to him, and she licked her lips nervously. “Did you see the older one’s obi? And the other two… the pattern on their sleeves? It depicts the marigold. You know what that means, right?” He shook his head, so she continued, “It’s an unlucky flower. Who would wear something like that?”
“I don’t understand,” he finally admitted. He had hoped she would say something he could tease her about, something he could turn into a game or some decent gossip. But the lone tones of her voice, the abrupt flick of her eyes… he didn’t like it.
She paused, setting her pristine chopsticks aside and laying her hands in her lap. She seemed to be contemplating something, perhaps the best way to tell him what she was thinking. He waited patiently. At last, she spoke again. “Have you noticed that most of our friends have left the valley?”
He nodded. “Our clan honors old alliances. There is still war up north.”
“Many have been sent away,” she agreed. “Not since the Clan Wars have this many Sparrow been reassigned to distant places.”
“This is true,” he began, not sure where she was going with this. “But I’m not sure-”
“And yet,” she whispered, “doesn’t the valley seem more full than ever before?”
He paused again. This was true, actually. He hadn’t considered this, hadn’t truly noticed, but indeed the numbers of people within the village seemed constant, even as others were being sent away. Still, he could be mistaken, and even if not, why was it significant?
“How many of our friends have left the valley?” she asked suddenly. He gave it some thought, but she answered for him. “All of them,” she said, practically spitting the words. “All of them are gone. All of our friends… reassigned. Just you and I remain. Haven’t you noticed that?” She held out her hands, counting off each name with a finger. “Tashiro was sent north for reasons we were not told. Sodormu was sent to root out a group of bandits and hasn’t been seen since. Hejiko left and married an Otomo, and we haven’t heard anything from her! A favor called by the Doji robbed us of Hisao. Another sent Yumi to the Mantis isles. Masato was last seen heading to Kyuden Tonbo, they say he’ll be marrying into the Dragonfly…”
“Honorable appointments, all,” Kenta reminded her. “We should be proud of them! They bring honor to the clan with these new duties.”
“We’re never going to see them again,” she said darkly.
“Enough!” hissed Kenta. He gripped the table’s sides, his stomach tightening. “How can you say such things? What are you even talking about?” He shook his head, trying to make sense of what she was implying. Were these mundane assignments really so sinister?
She nodded to the three men. “They’re leaving,” she whispered. The two watched as the men abandoned their plates to the servant girl, bowing with thanks to the old man peeking through the kitchen before retreating through the doorway. She gestured to the table where they had sat. “Do you see that?”
“See what?!” he snapped, frustrated.
Aika’s voice was as hollow as her look. “They didn’t eat their yams.”
* * * * *
Kenta did not sleep well that night. He could not see past the veil of Aika’s words, and now they haunted him in faded echoes. He remembered the silence that followed her confessions, the same sort of morning quiet that followed the waking screams of the valley birds. All that noise followed by the maddening silence.
She didn’t get the chance to finish. Their conversation was interrupted by their duties; Kenta had late-season sowing to do, and Aika had to return to the Golden Sun Plain. But she promised to tell him her suspicions, unguarded, on the following day. This day. Kenta practiced his kata before the rising face of the Jade Sun, but his form was sorely lacking.
He wanted to help Aika, of course. Friendships like theirs were rare amongst samurai, even in a small valley like this one. He trusted her explicitly; he knew that he could drop his On while she was around, and that she would not judge him for his shameful emotions. This was a favor he was long eager to return, that she might open up to him as he so often did for her. Even as children she was always guarded, always cautious.
But this was not what he expected, not what he wanted at all. Had she always been so paranoid? He searched his memories as he walked the morning streets of the village, keeping his head down to hide his wandering thoughts. In truth, he dreaded the oncoming conversation with Aika; if she confessed doubt of the clan’s leadership, was that not “betrayal of the heart?” Could he keep such a thing a secret? And if so, what weight would it lay upon his mortal soul?
He passed the empty tea house, casting it a cursory glance. It was so welcoming before, his favorite place to eat. Painted yellow by morning, as an empty wooden husk, it seemed strangely foreboding.
At least he thought it was empty. Just as he turned his head to look away, the peripheral of his vision caught a hint of movement through the doorway. It was his Haragei that spun him towards the door. He saw Aika, brushing aside the curtains that obscured the passage, stepping out into the morning light. Time seemed to drag in those moments that followed. She was not aware of him, her eyes were on the ground. Her feet were bare, but she was dressed in formal black and brown, the white of the Sparrow Mon showing proudly on the back of her outmost kimono, daisho tucked into her obi. Her hair, normally a plain ponytail, showed much care now, as if she were prepared for a formal meeting. She carried a naked scroll, already decaying in the moist air. Kenta watched her, outlined in the fire of morning, noticing, for the first time, an understated and simple beauty in her tanned face and dark eyes, a strength that was willingly frail and subdued.
He started towards her, spoke her name. She turned, startled, regarding him with an odd mix of surprise and dread. It was enough to strike him to hesitation, and he stopped immediately, an arm’s reach from her shoulder. Her stance showed no acknowledgement, her body no recognition. Her eyes betrayed an unfamiliar and resolved sorrow.
Time snapped. Behind her came a second form, this one taller and masculine. A man with a cruel face, lean and dark, hair pulled into a courtier’s topknot. He stopped behind her, flanked by two armed men in scout armor. Personal guards. This man must be a lord, Kenta thought, though he’d never seen him before and did not recognize his personal Mon.
“Aika?” he asked.
She allowed one more fleeting moment before disconnecting her gaze, turning away with a dragging step. The gesture was a proud one, one befitting a samurai, and yet it wept with an inevitable doom, like a defeated beast sighing its last breath. Only now did he spot the escort on the hilltop horizon. Five armed and mounted samurai, one horse with no rider.
He made to follow her, forgetting himself, but his path was immediately barred by the guards. He was taken aback, but then replied with trained etiquette. He bowed to the man he did not recognize. “Excuse me,” he said, “I do not mean to intrude. But my friend-”
“Your friend has just received a very important and honorable appointment,” the man said, cutting Kenta off. His voice was smooth as his silken robes, as clean as his fingernails. “The Champion himself has chosen her above all other candidates to aid the Phoenix in their time of need. There is war up north, and the Sparrow answer the call to aid their honored allies.”
Aika did not look back. Reaching the group of samurai, she mounted the horse and as one they rode off. Kenta’s last glimpse of her was a galloping shadow gulped down by an amber hilltop.
“She brings much honor to her clan,” said the man.
Kenta could only nod. It was true, wasn’t it? Yet there was something wrong about what he’d witnessed, something surreal and out of place, like a misplaced detail in one of his grandmother’s stories. He regarded this man once more, furrowing his brow as he tried again to identify him.
The man smiled, bowing. “Forgive me, we have not been properly introduced. I only arrived today. My name is Makishi, and I am honored to serve our Champion’s advisor, Suzume Chiaki, as her personal aide.”
Kenta bowed lower. It was a fortunate gesture, for it hid his uncertainty. The valley was small… surely this man had heard of him? As he rose, for a brief second, he caught a glimpse of a floral pattern on the cloth around the man’s collar. It may have been a marigold.
“I am Suzume Kenta,” he said to his new superior.
Makishi showed no notice of Kenta’s quiet state, immediately falling into the concessionary talk of courtiers. He apologized for the abrupt dismissal of his friend, but time was of the essence, and not a moment could be spared. Of course, if Kenta wished to send his friend a letter, the heralds would happily to assist him. All he had to do was deliver it to Makishi himself, and it would reach the appropriate destination.
Kenta nodded and spoke his thanks. Their conversation was brief after that, Makishi excusing Kenta to go about his duties. As Makishi and his guard walked away, Kenta noticed the village coming to life as its denizens began the day’s duties. Slowly, it occurred to him that he was the only one who witnessed the departure of his friend. To anyone else, even if he spoke of it, she would only be a detail in a story, a passing footnote that had no meaning.
Swallowing the feeling of wrongness, he went about his duties, resisting the urge to look back to the hilltop where she’d disappeared.
* * * * *
Miki was not at the Content Rabbit today. There was a new servant girl, someone Kenta did not recognize. She was younger and perhaps a little more outgoing, something that, under different circumstances, Kenta would have appreciated. Now, however, it seemed so very wrong. Miki had served at the Content Rabbit for years. When he asked about her, the new girl said she’d been called home to tend to an ill relative. Kenta resolved to light some incense for her, but in the pit of his stomach he suspected that it would be a wasted gesture.
That day, he counted seven plates where the customers did not eat their yams.
From his vantage at the top of the hill, Kenta stared down at the village. At this distance nothing seemed awry. It was a quiet village. Some lazy activity in the market square. Some children playing a chasing game between the shops. A line already formed in front of Otto’s noodle-hut. A few figures brought buckets of water from the nearby lake. The lentil fields stretched beyond the village border. All around, farmers and samurai tended to the fields, side-by-side. It was Doji Suzume’s inspired vision brought to life, a peaceful existence of honorable poverty.
From this distance, nothing seemed wrong at all. Kenta narrowed his eyes. Were there fewer samurai tending the fields than before? It was hard to say. He scraped the bowl of his memory for answers, but found none. He could not be certain.
Surely this was all his imagination. His mind played tricks, encouraged by Aika’s words. She had planted this seed of doubt in his mind, and it was nothing more than a ghost story, only as solid as a wisp of smoke, nothing more. Kenta released a sigh into the damp air. Yes, this was all just his imagination.
* * * * *
1171, Month of the Monkey
He broke the serenity of the memorial garden for the duration of two hand claps, then placed his forehead to the ground before the stone marker. Close to the ground, Kenta’s lips whispered prayers to his grandmother. He knew that the kami would lift them up into Yomi and carry them to her ears. Or perhaps she was here now, although if that were true, surely she would make her presence known.
Or her displeasure, he thought. Kenta rose from his deep bow, noticing a thick patch of unhewn knotweed. His grandmother’s ashes were scattered throughout this garden, as were the ashes of countless other Sensei, all connected to the noble line of Suzume Munetoshi, the first Sensei of the Sparrow School, and first master of the Patient Wing Style. Even though it was difficult to maintain a flawless garden in these harsh lands, and some minor things could be overlooked due to this difficulty, the current state of the dojo’s gardens was simply unacceptable. Overgrown bushes, untrimmed grasses, and sand beds disturbed with animal footprints. To allow the memorial gardens of the Suzume Sensei to grow into this state was shameful. As Kenta finished his personal ceremony, he promised himself that he would write a strongly-worded letter about the groundskeeper to his Champion, and make his displeasure fully clear.
He rose, brushing the knees of his black hakama and the elbows of his white gi. The tips of his hair were still needle-pointed from the sweat of the evening exercises. He had stayed much later than he normal, foregoing his dinner in fact, and the Jade Sun had just set fire to the western mountains. But he really needed the exercise. More accurately, he needed the distraction. Although he could not explain it, every day he felt more and more like a stranger in his home village. If he could only find his center, everything else would fall into place.
As he moved towards the dojo, and the sounds of the practicing students within, he saw one of the shoji doors side open. A tall instructor exited, entering the gardens on bare feet, taking the respectful path directly towards him. He watched the man approach with crossed arms. Perhaps he would not have need for a letter after all.
He waited until the man was within hearing distance. “Excuse me,” he said, bowing his head in greeting, “A moment for a word is all I-”
“Explain what you are doing here!” the man interrupted. He was frowning, and his eyes were stern. He did not return Kenta’s bow.
Straightening quickly, Kenta bristled, but calmed himself with a low breath. He said nothing, staring at the man with an intense look, making sure to tilt himself so that his grandmother’s Mon, stitched on the chest of his gi, showed predominantly. Within moments this man would recognize him, realize his mistake, and bow in apology. It would lend Kenta’s demands for a better kept garden more weight.
But that did not happen. The instructor met Kenta’s gaze, tapping his finger impatiently. This man did not recognize his grandmother’s Mon. “I am Suzume Kenta,” he said. The man’s frown deepened. For a moment, Kenta felt taken aback. “The grandson of Master Sensei Suzume Kaihime,” he clarified, perhaps more urgently than he had intended.
The man’s eyes darted to the stone marker, then back to him. Abruptly, he smiled and lowered his head in a humble bow. “Ah, of course,” he said, “forgive me! I did not recognize you in this light, Kenta-san. A thousand apologies for this misunderstanding.”
Kenta felt the stir of uncertainty. This man, an instructor of the dojo, did not recognize him. In fact, he was very certain that this man had never even heard of his grandmother! But how could that be? It could be a misunderstanding, but Kenta was not convinced. Even so, he could not levy an accusation… if he was wrong it would be shameful. And of course, there was the possibility that he was growing as paranoid as Aika had been. “It is alright,” he said hesitantly. “There was no harm in it.”
“I am grateful for your forgiveness,” the man replied smoothly, lacing his fingers. “I am Suzume Masu.” The man cocked his head for a moment. “I do not mean to sound rude, Kenta-san, but the visitation hours of the dojo have ended.”
“Visitation hours?” Kenta narrowed his eyes. “I was not aware of such a change in policy.”
“Oh yes,” Masu explained, “relatively new, in all truth. Dawn until dusk, open to all. But when the Jade Sun sets, the students require the grounds for evening kata.”
“Kata practice in the evening is most unusual.”
The man smiled faintly. “A student of the Patient Wing must be able to perform his art in the dark as well as the light, wouldn’t you agree?”
Kenta cast a look around the man’s shoulder. Now that it was dusk, the light within the dojo was very dim, but through the slightly opened shoji door, he could make out the dark figures of a few students. They held top-heavy polearms in their hands, repeating the same strikes in perfect unison. Kenta did not recognize the form.
“The Suzume School now teaches the bisento?” he asked, betraying a hint of suspicion.
The man quickly stepped into his line of sight. “Suzume Yugoki-sama’s orders,” Masu explained quickly. “The weapon is proving effective in the fighting up north. As an honored graduate of this dojo, you may sit in on a demonstration of the weapon, if you wish. Tomorrow.”
The reply was sincere, but the offer was not. Kenta didn’t know if his champion would condone such a rapid change in the dojo’s teachings, but he knew that his grandmother would have been against it. Casually, he glanced to the side, in the direction of the dojo’s bathhouse, as if something interested him. The man’s gaze naturally followed, and as it did, Kenta snuck a look at the man’s hands. Even in the twilight, it was easy to see the his fingernails.
Clean. Not one speck of dirt. Kenta looked back to this Masu and met his eyes. This was no man of honorable poverty, no eater of roots. Even as the realization came, a voice spoke in his mind. It told him, “Patience. The Sparrow learns his enemy first.”
“I must decline,” Kenta replied, concealing his suspicions with a cordial tone. “But I am honored by your offer. Perhaps another time.”
The man smiled. “Perhaps,” he agreed.
Kenta bowed and excused himself, not waiting for the man to return the gesture. As he headed to the village and the small hut that was his family’s estate, he realized that he would have to write his champion a far different letter than he had originally intended.
* * * * *
That night brought little sleep. Kenta’s dreams were haunted by visions of a Sparrow village filled with faceless villagers. They had turned on him in a dojo lit with iron braziers and flames of sickly green, his rusted and dull blade futile against their ethereal skin. Their faces were as smooth and featureless, like the shell of an egg.
He shook his head to rid himself of the memory. He was not a child anymore, ghostly nightmares held no sway over him. But even so, as he walked through the village square the next day, he could not shake the foreboding feeling that had befallen him. He had written a letter to his champion about this “Suzume Masu,” but it had occurred to him this morning that he could not entrust it to anyone but his champion. Surely it was just his imagination, a lingering effect of the previous night’s dark dreams, but even so he felt that he could trust no one.
Suddenly, he heard the sound of a crash, followed by cruel laughter. He spun, spotting the source: a young heimin woman had tripped carrying her lentil-bucket, and her tumble sent them spilling before her. Arching over the woman, two Sparrow samurai laughed, eyes dancing with amusement.
“What are you doing!?” Kenta shouted. Abruptly the laughter stopped. The two men turned their heads and stared at him. They looked faintly confused, as if their very nature had just been questioned.
Kenta stepped forward, kneeling before the heimin woman. She was hurriedly gathering fistfuls of spilled lentils, rushing to refill her bucket. Kenta reached forward to help her. She flinched, pulling away, her hand rising as if to defend herself from a strike.
He froze, his face a vision of shock. Quickly she scooped up what she could and dumped them into her bucket. “I’m sorry!” she said, standing quickly and stumbling before rushing away, ducking into one of the wooden shelters.
Afraid. She was afraid of him. Afraid of a Sparrow samurai! Kenta felt his jaw go slack at the cold realization. When had that happened!? For how long had the villagers feared their masters!?
His head turned, looking up at the dark and amused faces of the two men that had laughed. He was kneeling in their shadows, and it felt cold like the still waters of the lake. The tallest of them smirked down at him. “See? No harm done. Just a little fun is all.” With that, they turned as one to walk away. Kenta spotted the faint sliver of a marigold pattern showing from beneath their collars.
On shaken legs he stood, his eyes raking his surroundings with a slow turn. Otto’s noodle-hut was closed. The square was empty of heimin. Small groups of Sparrow samurai walked through the streets of the square, openly carrying bisento, a weapon the school did not teach. None worked the fields beyond the border.
Kenta felt as though he’d awoken in unfamiliar surroundings. These were not the lands of his youth. This was not his village. Those men were not samurai of the Sparrow, who lived lives of honorable poverty, gathered dirt underneath their fingernails, ate roots, and told long-winded tales. No, this was a land of strangers. For the first time in a long time, he truly opened his eyes and saw a strange and warped world, a darkened mirror of the place where he’d once belonged. Why hadn’t he seen it before?
And there it was. The tightness in his belly. The urgency churning in his chest. It was his instincts. Haragei. Awareness of danger. His grandmother’s lesson. It had been there all along, screaming at him, clawing desperately for his attention. But he’d paid it no mind, pushed it aside, even after Aika had given it a voice.
For how long had he ignored his instincts? For how long had they been screaming?
* * * * *
Kenta sat in the main chamber of the temple. With the sun setting on the horizon, the shrines were painted with brilliant swaths of orange and yellow. He was reminded of fall, seasons of dying.
“You seek peace, my son?” came the quiet voice of the monk. His black and orange robes stirred the floor’s dust as he sat, adopting the lotus position. His wrinkled face smiled gently, his bald head catching a glint from the dying sunlight.
Kenta nodded. “Hai, honored elder. I am seeking peace.”
The monk gestured with an open hand. “Please, tell me what troubles you.”
Kenta’s head sunk beneath his shoulders. He spoke to the ground. “I do not recognize my home anymore,” he confessed. “Everything has changed.”
“Oh?” The monk shifted his old bones. “Why are you disturbed by change, my son? It is the first law of the world. All is subject to change… nothing physical remains permanent.”
“It is not as simple as that,” Kenta shook his head, “there is something else. Something…” He struggled to put his thoughts to words. It was so subtle, so slight, that he almost doubted its existence at all. He felt foolish under the warm, trusting gaze of this old man. Was this the same difficulty Aika had felt?
“My friends are all gone,” he finally said, lifting his head. “All of them have been sent away.”
“And you feel as though you have been left behind?”
“No,” Kenta replied. “That does not bother me. I knew the day would come, and I prepared for it. Rather, I am disturbed. All of my friends are gone… yet the valley seems more full than ever before.”
The monk’s eyes narrowed slightly. “What do you mean?”
“There are many people here now,” Kenta continued, his eyes returning to the floor. “People I do not recognize. I used to know everyone in the village beyond Kyuden Suzume, but now there is not a single face that I recognize. How can that be when-”
Kenta’s eyes widened. A sliver of cloth showed from underneath the monk’s robes. A floral pattern. Marigolds. He looked up. The monk was frowning.
Who was this monk? Had he ever seen him before? At once, Kenta remembered that this temple was tended to by a kind old man, known for his laughter and his habit of relinquishing candies to children. Where was he now?
The monk leaned forward. “Are you alright, my son? You look pale.” His words were spoken in stark contrast to his features. No warmth there, not anymore.
Carefully, slowly, Kenta raised his head again, keeping his features perfectly neutral, hiding the growing sense of panic and entrapping it within his rapid heart. “Perhaps it is just my imagination,” he said calmly. “Nothing more.”
The monk stared at him for several moments before finally nodding his head. “Yes,” he said. “Just your imagination. Doubt seeks you, my son. Do not allow it to find you. It is a sin, you know.”
“Hai,” Kenta replied, touching his head to the floor. “It is as you say, honored elder. I will leave now. Your meditations require attention, I am sure.”
The monk smiled.
* * * * *
It was night. Kenta’s purposeful walk from the temple took him away from the village, away from their feeble rice paddies, towards the small lake nestled beyond. He kept his hand away from his sword, his steps slow and purposeful. He did not look behind him. Instead, his instincts guided him, leading around the lip of the waters until his destination came into sight: a small wooden pagoda rising clumsily from the marshy brush. The doorway inside yawned into darkness, and without a word, Kenta stepped inside.
The musky, stale smell of decay greeted his nostrils. Another step, and he was consumed by darkness. Quietly, he removed his sandals, laying them on the damp, warped wood of the floor, feeling wetness on his bare feet. There was nothing here, he knew, nothing but the webs of marsh spiders. This place had been long abandoned, its original purpose forgotten. But even so, he knew that in this empty place, he would find the thing that he was seeking.
There was no reason for his sudden sense of alarm, but he trusted it regardless. Drawing his blade, he collapsed into Food-Seeking Heron pose, bringing his blade above his head. He felt an impact, and the sound of steel rung out against his blade. He uncoiled his legs, springing upwards and thrusting his weapon out. The blade cut into flesh. Outside, the moonlight illuminated a splash of red spilling out from the door.
Kenta turned from his kill in the blinding darkness to find another figure at the doorway. He gave it no time, leaping forward, his grandmother’s blade leading the way. Kenta’s strikes were turned aside, one after the next, but the Sparrow pressed his attack, forcing the assailant into the moonlight outside the pagoda. Stumbling backwards, the man slipped on the wet grass, something one raised in the marshlands would never do. With an angry cry, Kenta brought his blade down and ended him.
He stood there in the damp dark, chest heaving. Two dead men lay before him. Their blood trickled down the flank of his blade. As he suspected, they had followed him from the temple. Two glances confirmed that he didn’t know either of them. Even so, they wore the trappings of Sparrow Clan samurai. Their bisento lay in their numb hands.
Cautiously, he slid his blade into the sleeve of the nearest body, using it to lift the arm up. He peered into the kimono sleeve and found a bracelet of beads. Each one was carved into the shape of a marigold.
The discovery robbed him of his strength, and he fell to his knees in the moist brush. His blade dropped to his side as he gritted his teeth against the shuddering of his heart. The voice of his grandmother, his Sensei, echoed in his mind. “Trust your gut feeling,” it said, “Trust your instincts. Act without hesitance. This is the first lesson.”
“Always remember the first lesson,” she had said. “So much depends upon it.”
Bitter tears streamed down his face, his hands planted in the mud. He mourned for his grandmother. He mourned for his friends. He mourned for the Sparrow. For Aika. For himself.
“I have failed you, Sensei,” he whispered. “Fortunes forgive me… I could have stopped it.”
* * * * *
“I am sorry,” Makishi said, bowing his head in apology, “Yugoki-sama is currently indisposed. Perhaps he will be free tomorrow.”
Kenta frowned. He’d made it all the way into the audience chamber of the Kyuden before anyone tried to stop him. “The words I have for my champion are quite urgent,” he insisted.
The courtier smiled, surrounded by four others in courtly trappings. Kenta’s eyes darted from one man to the next. Their clothes were silk instead of the traditional burlap, their fingernails free of dirt.
“Perhaps I could hear them and pass them on,” he offered. “I meet with our honored champion frequently. I would be happy to assist you, young man. I could even arrange a meeting.”
Kenta shook his head. “I’m afraid such a thing is not possible.”
The man’s smile broadened, and the four others accompanying him smiled as well. It was as if they were all the same person. “You are Suzume Kenta, yes?”
Kenta’s heart raced. His gaze moved about the room to the others in the audience chamber. A woman playing the biwa, not paying him any mind. An older man painting a scroll, a few years from the monastery. Two women whispering secrets to each other. All wore patterns of marigolds. With growing horror, he realized that he did not recognize a single person within this room. Not one within the audience chamber of Kyuden Suzume.
Makishi did not wait for his reply. He produced a scroll from within his sleeves. “Ah, I thought I recognized you, Kenta-san. Your champion has noticed you as well, it seems.”
He offered the scroll. With shaking hands, Kenta took it, unfurled it, eyes absorbing the words. It was Yugoki’s calligraphy, that could not be mistaken, as was his penchant for excessive strings of detail and flowery language. They were new orders. Kenta was being sent to Kaiu Kabe in the lands of the Crab.
Kenta looked up at the man smiling back at him, so stately and well-groomed. A hint of choking perfume drifted around him, his smile dark, not touching his eyes. “Quite an honorable station,” the man said. “You will bring glory to the Sparrow with this assignment.” The way he said it, if one had been listening, truly listening, one would have thought that he spoke of a clan other than his own.
What could be done? Should he draw his sword and attack? What would it accomplish? There were too many of them, and the guards would surely fall upon him. He would disgrace his Sensei, his family, and no one would ever know the truth. Should he try to shove his way past them? Same result. Should he run into the streets and shout to everyone what had happened until this throat was raw? That the lands of the Sparrow were now overrun with strangers? He was not sure that any true Sparrow remained, and if they did, they would surely think him mad and ignore him.
Just as he had ignored Aika. Kenta gritted his teeth. The fortunes were cruel in their justness.
Powerless. He was powerless. There was nothing he could do. He had his chance to act, to fly, but he had hesitated, and now the beast had him. He could only bide his time, try to survive whatever they’d arranged for him, and seek allies, anyone who would believe him.
For now, these strangers, whoever they were, had won. He was too late to stop anything. The banner of the Sparrow had fallen.
That is why he simply lowered his head, bowing to the man that he did not know.
* * * * *
1171, Day 11, Month of the Rooster
“The entire company was wiped out,” the chui reported, his own armor thick with the enemy’s blood. Hida Shara frowned, eyes narrowing as she made several internal calculations. Another ambush, another unit lost. And every day more and more of the gaijin destroyers marched into the Empire. Shara turned her head and spat on the ground. So this was the cost of the Crab’s failure.
“No survivors, then,” she said. It was less of a question and more a statement of darkening fact, as if by speaking her reality out loud, she could somehow grasp the enormity of what had befallen them.
The chui shifted, and immediately Shara reaffixed her attention upon him. “A survivor?”
“Just one,” the man replied. “Suzume Kenta. A visitor to The Wall when the Gaijin struck. He was attached to one of the squadrons that made up the company.”
A survivor meant a chance to learn something about the enemy. “Take me to him,” Shara ordered. The officer bowed and turned on his heel, and in silence she was led to a tattered and damp tent. Striding within, Shara saw him, a quiet and lean Sparrow with haunted eyes. His sword, sheathed, was still in his hands.
His eyes flicked to her as she entered, and he bowed his head absently, returning to a far-away look, largely unconcerned.
“What happened?” she demanded.
He didn’t reply at first. His eyes were fixed upon an invisible horizon, the look of a haunted man. She’d seen such before. When he finally spoke, his response was soft.
“Long ago, there were two sparrows. One day, they heard a noise from the brush, a sign of danger. The first one stayed to listen, to identify what he’d heard. By the time he realized that he was doomed, the other one had flown away.”
“He’s gone a little daft,” the chui explained, lowering his head in apology. “You understand, these simple goshi… they’re not prepared for horrors like this.”
Shara watched curiously as the Sparrow met her gaze once more. Dark rings had formed under his eyes. “It is the first lesson. The first lesson. Trust one’s instincts. Act without hesitation. Identify the danger and act.” She realized, at once, that he was not fully present. He spoke not to her. He spoke to someone else.
“It is a harsh lesson, Sensei,” he whispered, “a harsh lesson…”
“Tell me everything,” Shara said.
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