An engimatic tale of wave men and the sacred art of the duel.
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
Summer, year 1192
It was hard to believe that a well-known duelist of such skill would ever patronize an establishment like the Kaishintei. It was, after all, a house of illicit pleasures. Even if he was just a ronin, any legendary duelist would avoid a place with this stained reputation. Surely even men without honor would not stain what was left of their good name, especially when that name still had value. After all, it was the nature of the disgraced to cling to whatever remained to them.
The life of a ronin was a life of shameful isolation. Such men had nothing. No home, no family, no honor. And no purpose either, except to suffer. To be a ronin was to eat whatever fell from the tables of the privileged and to risk oneself in wars of which one had no stake. It was to present the face of a samurai while dressed as a heimin. With futile stoicism, they waited for death to reap them like such brittle wheat, hoping that the next life would be kinder to them. They were empty husks of men, ghosts in samurai-garb, caught on the barbs of their forever-lost nobility. They stood in the shadows of ancestors whose blood had long soured in their veins. They did not even own their own suffering; this was claimed by the tales of warning whispered by old women to their children, the actors who mercilessly portrayed their kind on stage, and the cold, uncaring universe. In the end, all a man had was his name. His name, and the legend attached to it.
That the man who called himself Masatane now sipped sake within the Kaishintei filled the ronin with hot anger. It gave energy to his steps as he approached the tea house, batting aside the thin cloth draping the entrance and sweeping the room with his gaze. He was not a tall man, but he was stocky and muscled, the build of a man who trained constantly and fought often. His kimono was ruddy and patched in the places where it had ripped, but the black saya that held his katana was spotless and pristine. His brown eyes darted from one corner of the room to the next, seeking a familiar description in the sea of faces that now stared back at him with growing horror.
The patrons froze. There were many, mostly heimin, but some merchants as well. The serving girls of Kaishintei, who were known for their scandalously bare shoulders, looked at him with unobscured wonder. One stared while holding a tilted bottle of sake suspended over a patron’s cup, which was now overfull and spilling. The rest, faces of tired farmers, low-born merchants, and simple craftsmen, all watched with a sense of suspended panic. Collectively, their gaze alternated between the katana at his side and the anger on his face.
An old man clutching a teapot approached and bowed deeply. The owner, judging from the kanji stitched on his simple clothing. “Welcome,” he said, “Might you leave your sword outside? Swords make the younger girls nervous.”
The ronin ignored him and continued his search. For a moment, he thought he found the man he sought; a ronin in his late thirties seated at a corner table eating soup. But he did not match the description; he was too thin, for one thing, and although his hair was long, it was not cared for. His clothing was dirty and black, which was also wrong, and he didn’t seem to have the warrior’s spirit of a man famed for his blade-prowess. That man could not be the one he sought, and so he continued. His gaze penetrated the orange afternoon light filtering through the narrow windows of the far wall.
At last he found him: a lean figure lounging near the kitchen-entrance, dressed in a white kimono and possessing cloth-wrapped hands. It contrasted with his long, sharply dark hair. On his shoulder was a Mon that announced he was a hired ronin for the Scorpion. Seated beside him was a serving woman in kimonos that revealed her shoulders. She was frozen in mid-seduction. The man’s plate bore fine sushi and vinegared vegetables, selections for a high-paying customer. He was the only one still moving in the entire room; he was rubbing his chopsticks together as if to smooth them out, a wordless signal to the owner that he believed they were cheap and inferior.
The ronin in the doorway smiled. All eyes watched as he crossed the room, stopping at the table where the man sat. The woman blanched and slinked away, retreating wordlessly into the kitchen, past the collected staff that watched from the doorway. The seated man did not seem to notice.
For long moments, the stocky ronin stared down at the man in the white kimono. At last he glanced up, met the ronin’s gaze, paused for a moment, then returned to rubbing his chopsticks.
The ronin’s eye twitched. “Are you the man who calls himself ‘Masatane?’” he demanded.
The seated man paused again, this time leveling his gaze. He stared through a curtain of long hair, the dramatic shadows of the afternoon-light casting half of him in black. He smiled. “That is what others call me,” he affirmed. His voice was soft and cultured.
“And you have not corrected them?” the ronin asked.
“I see no reason to,” the slender man replied, laying his chopsticks flat on the table. He sat up, relaxed, but focused on the stocky armed ronin before him.
The ronin’s smile became a grin. “I was hoping you would say something like that,” he rumbled.
The man called Masatane renewed his smile. “I think you have me at a disadvantage,” he said, “for you know who I am, but I do not yet know your name.”
The ronin ignored him. “They say Masatane defeated a Chuden of the Kakita style. Is that correct?”
“Is that what they say?” he replied softly, a chuckle beneath his breath.
“They also say,” the ronin continued, “that he beat a Mirumoto samurai before the Drunken Lovers Bridge in Ryoko Owari.”
“Surely not,” he replied playfully, lacing his fingers.
The ronin’s eyes flashed again. “And they say that he has never lost a duel, not once in his entire life, not since he became a ronin!”
“You seem to know much of these local legends, friend,” the seated man appraised. He now measured the ronin keenly.
“I should know them quite well,” he ronin agreed. “After all, I was there when they happened!”
The seated man raised his eyebrow. “Interesting. I don’t remember seeing you.”
“Well you wouldn’t,” the ronin said, “all things considered.”
There was another pause, then, as the seated man opened his mouth to reply, but then seemed to reconsider his words. Finally, he leaned back into a beam of darkness, crossing his arms and laying his back flat against the wall. The staff of the kitchen collectively drew away from the nearby doorframe and away from the potential arc of the angry ronin’s sword arm.
“This man has had too much to drink,” he finally remarked.
The ronin shook his fists, causing the onlookers to flinch. “Don’t play dumb,” he shouted, “You know what I am trying to say! I know these things because I AM MASATANE!” Vigorously he jutted his finger at the seated man. “And you are an imposter!”
The dirty man at the corner table looked up from his soup.
The silence was broken with the seated man’s laughter. “How amusing,” he said, “I was bored only a moment ago, but you have given me great entertainment.” He looked to the owner. “Tashi, a bottle of sake for my friend the humorist.”
With a swipe of his hand, the ronin smacked the sushi plate from the table, sending it smashing into the far wall. Uncomfortable silence followed.
“So you are delusional,” the seated man said sadly.
“You think you can just take a man’s name?!” the ronin barked, “Just take his name and become him!? I earned my reputation, worked hard for it! You are just an upstart! A dirty thief!”
“I cannot steal what has always been mine,” the seated man replied calmly. “I am Masatane, the whispering blade-”
“I am Masatane!” the angry ronin shouted, his hand flicking to his katana. The movement sent the denizens of the teahouse diving under their tables flattening in their seats. The owner pressed himself against the nearest wall. But the enraged ronin did not draw his blade. Not yet. “I am Masatane,” he shouted again, “the only Masatane! And I will prove it right now!”
Slowly, the man in white stood, revealing, for the first time, a sheathed katana hanging from his obi. The other man tensed. They stared at one another for some time.
“It seems I must teach you some manners,” he finally said. His tone was still calm, but his expression was serious. “I am Masatane, not you. After today, you’ll never forget this fact again.”
“Honorable samurai,” came an interjection from the teahouse owner. Both men twisted in place and glared at the interruption. The old man bowed deeply. “I do not mean to impose,” he said meekly, “it is not every day a man gets the opportunity to challenge… himself. However, I humbly ask that you resolve this argument outside…”
The two ronin looked at one another, then nodded. The man in brown led the other out into the street. Those within the teahouse watched them leave. A moment later, the teahouse resounded with the shuffle of furniture and the clatter of rice bowls being set aside. All clammered to their feet and stumbled outside to witness the oncoming contest. Even the kitchen staff and the serving girls forgot their duties and pushed their way out the door and into the street. The dirty man in the far corner rose, casting the owner a sympathetic look, and then followed. “May as well,” the owner finally conceded, the last one to leave the Kaishintei.
A crowd formed around the two ronin. The onlookers kept their distance, but were close enough to bear witness. The stocky man in brown stretched his back and limbs, preparing himself for physical activity. His face was set and determined, his eyes lit. The slimmer man in the white kimono pulled the curtains of black hair from his handsome face, tying them into a ponytail behind his head. He flexed his fingers calmly.
The man in brown finished his stretches. “Name anything,” he challenged, “Anything at all! I will best you at it. I am Masatane and I will prove it in any way you describe!”
The man in white nodded. “Agreed,” he said, then made his way to one of the small maples that stood outside the tea house. The crowd parted as he approached, watching him curiously with united attention. The streets were not busy at this time of day, but a few passers-by joined the crowd, wondering what was going on.
As the slender ronin’s gaze passed him, the dirty man in black offered a friendly smile. He was pointedly ignored in favor of the maple tree, from which he plucked a single red leaf from a drooping branch. This he carried back to the center of the street. He took the leaf gently in his mouth, then with both hands undid the peace knot binding his katana in its saya. He held the leaf and smiled at his opponent.
“The real Masatane is known for his skill, speed, and precision.” He spoke the words to the crowd, taking an orators tone, pointedly ignoring his opponent. “Each of these three is worthless without the other. Demonstrating his balance of all three should be nothing for the real Masatane.”
The man tossed the leaf into the air. It fluttered above for only a moment, then slowly tumbled down in front of him. His sword was out in a flash; the ignorant heimin could never appreciate the perfect fluidity of his form, the flawless rolling motion that liberated the blade from its sheath. But the ronin in black did. From his place in the crowd he saw the movement begin at the swordsman’s belly and flow into his extremities. He guided the arc of the sword in an attack so perfect it seemed to split the very glint of sunlight dancing upon its edge. With one fluid motion the sword passed through the leaf. Three pieces fell to the dust and lay still.
An appreciative murmur went through the crowd as the ronin in white sheathed his katana, tapping the saya and turning the sword edge-side up, then pulling the saya forward into the blade with reverence. With one strike he had cut the falling leaf twice. None could deny the skill with which he’d accomplished this task.
The murmuring of the crowd was silenced as the ronin in brown barked, “Anyone can cut a leaf!” With a jutting finger, he pointed at a hapless young boy in the crowd, no older than thirteen years. “Bring me one of those leaves, boy! Be quick!”
He knew the boy would obey. Heimin always obeyed if you yelled loud enough. The young boy hesitated only for a moment before dashing obediently to the tree. He was a waifish one, his neck too long for his shoulders and the awkward stride that came with adolescence. He clumsily tore one of the leaves from the short tree and made his way back. He made to offer the leaf to the man in brown, but the ronin halted him several steps away. The boy looked at him with some alarm.
The man in brown took a step back, adopting a dueling stance. The crowd’s eyes collectively widened in horror as he placed his hand on the handle of his sword. The boy stared with open fear from within ronin’s shadow. “Come forward a bit,” the ronin barked. “And when I say to, throw the leaf in the air.”
When the boy did not move, the ronin cursed, shouting obscenities that spittled his mouth. The boy shuffled forward, shaking, his face pale. Many in the crowd looked away. The ronin in black frowned.
“Now!” The ronin commanded. The boy shut his eyes and threw the leaf as hard as he could, bracing himself for the searing pain of a severed arm, or possibly the impact of a blade in his skull. The ronin unleashed his sword in an upward arc, screaming a “Kiai” of fury. The crowd gasped.
After many moments, the boy dared to open an eye. He stared upwards at a disbelieving stocky ronin with a twitching eye. Clinging to his blade was the wet leaf, uncut. The boy, likewise, was unharmed. But the suspended sword was still inches away from his face, and the boy stumbled back and crawled back into the crowd.
The stocky ronin stared at the leaf with a reddening face. “Impossible,” he breathed.
“If you swing too hard,” the man in white said smugly, “the leaf will not cut. The real Masatane does not wildly swing his sword like a common bandit.” He looked to the crowd and flashed a winning grin. “We have our answer now, don’t we?”
A few snickers rose from the gathered heimin, but they were cut off by a furious scream. The ronin in brown tore the leaf from his sword, then spat on the ground. “That proves nothing!” he shouted. “Nothing! The real Masatane is famed for his strength and technique, is he not?”
The man in white cautiously nodded.
The stocky ronin laughed and stepped away, moving through the parting crowd towards the tea house. He stormed past the man in black, not acknowledging the kind smile that was cast towards him. With one hand he grabbed one of the many thin tatami mats that lay on the ground outside, with the other he snapped off a short maple branch. Turning abruptly, he dragged both into the street. As the crowd watched, he plunged the stick into the dirt of the road, rolled the mat tightly into a cylinder, then sheathed the protruding stick with the mat so that it stood up from the ground. Satisfied, he took a few steps back.
As the crowd watched, the ronin brought his blade carefully above his head. They could not comprehend the raw power of this stance, but the ronin in black knew it well. His muscles were coiled and building tension, and his chi gathered and churned like a fire roaring at his center. He unleashed his strike with a fierce “Kiai” and a downward slash that brought him to a kneel. The blade seamlessly cut through the obstacle. The top half toppled to the street, effortlessly cut in two.
The crowd rippled again with many impressed whispers. The man in brown flashed a triumphant smile at his opponent as he stood. “I suppose that would be easy for you?”
The crowd went silent. The man in white was not smiling anymore. With narrow eyes he looked to the same young boy from before. “Please bring me a mat,” he said. The boy did as he was told, even as the tea-house owner rubbed his bald head in worry over his mats. The slender ronin echoed the actions of his opponent, rolling up the tatami mat into a cylinder and sheathing it over the maple branch. He took his stance, choosing to keep his sword sheathed as he focused on the mat before him. He pulled a breath from the crisp air, pulled the saya away as he exhaled, and then struck. The blade cut through the mat, but snagged just before it could make it all the way through. The man’s eyes widened in shock. His sword had become stuck before he could finish his cut.
The crowd gasped at this failure, forgetting themselves in the heat of the moment. The ronin in brown laughed mockingly. “You see?” he shouted. “You see? An imposter! I am the REAL Masatane!”
For the first time, the man in white seemed to lose a bit of his calm. He spun around and snarled, loosening a strand of black hair that hung before his face. “I am beginning to lose my patience with you,” he hissed.
The stocky ronin crossed his arms. “You are simply upset that your lies have been exposed.”
The man in white did not look at the young boy, but his next words were for him. “Go into the tea house. Fetch me a candle.”
The man in brown raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. The boy did as he was told, coming back into the street after some time with a small white candle. The owner sighed inwardly at the prospect of more property damage.
Drawing flint and using the guard of his katana, the man in white lit the candle, then set it on a nearby stone t?r? lamp. Then he took two paces away and turned to face the candle. The flame danced gently on the wick. He looked to the tea house owner.
“Old man,” he said. “Am I about one ken away from that flame?”
“Perhaps a little more than that,” the old man replied.
He nodded, faced the candle again, and then fell into his stance. Without stepping forward, he slashed out from his saya with his sword, cutting the air in a perfect movement. A gust stirred from the strike. The candle’s flame instantly extinguished.
The crowd gasped again, and some polite applause rose from the back. The man in white smiled and accepted this praise with a pleased look. “The real Masatane has a legendary reach,” he explained. “If you were who you claim to be, then you should be able to extinguish that candle from a ken’s distance, just as I have.”
The ronin in brown stared, daunted by the candle on the stone lantern. Finally, he nodded. “Light it.” The man in white obliged him, then stepped away. The ronin drew in many sharp breaths, slowly drew his blade, then held it above his head in a practiced stance. At last he struck, bringing the sword down and shouting his fierce cry. As the blade came down, he collapsed his knees into a crouch, allowing the full force of his body to lend its strength to the blow. The sword struck the dirt road. The ronin’s voice tore the sky.
The candle-flame did not even flicker. The man in white grinned.
The crowd released a few minor snickers. The ronin stood, rage on his face. He did not sheath his sword. “You cheated!” he accused. “The wind blew when you struck! That is what snuffed the candle!”
Silence. The slender ronin’s grin faded into a cold frown. The crowd exchanged glances; the accusation had marred his honor. “I have had enough of you,” he said, moving to the center of the street. “You no longer amuse me.”
The stocky ronin smiled, showing a hint of his white teeth. “There is only one true way to decide.”
The man in white nodded. “Agreed. Let this decide it.”
“To the death,” the ronin said, adopting his stance.
“To the death,” his opponent whispered.
And then, to the shock of all, the ronin in black stood between them.
Conflicting voices rose from the crowd like a wave. None had even seen the dusty man step forward. Yet there he stood between the two duelists with his arms extended, his long black hair unwashed and stiff, his expression cloudy and serious. The man in brown was surprised, noticing for the first time that the unwashed ronin’s hands were bandaged. A black sword in a dented saya swung from his obi.
“That is an odd seppuku you are attempting, friend,” the slender ronin remarked. “If you wish to die I can grant you that favor later. For now, please step aside and do not interfere.” The man’s eyes were cold. “This is a matter of honor.”
“I disagree,” the ronin in black said. “This is a matter of pride.”
The ronin in white shrugged. “Is there a difference?”
The ronin in brown shouted. “You test my patience, fool! Now out of the way or I’ll cut through you both!”
“Do you both truly intend to kill yourselves over the name of a dishonored man?” the ronin in black asked, looking from one man to the next. “A man who, despite his skill, has no place in the world? A man who will, soon enough, be forgotten and replaced by yet another legend?” He scoffed. “I have been through all of the surrounding lands and accepted coin from both sides of this war. There is a Masatane in every province. Sometimes two. If you wish to kill all Masatanes but yourself, then you have some ways to go.”
He lowered his head as the two duelists scowled. “Normally I would just let you both kill yourselves. But in this case, I cannot.” He looked at the man in white. “You are hired by the Scorpion for this war.” He looked to the man in brown. “And you were hired by the Phoenix, weren’t you?” The stocky ronin looked surprised. “And if one of you dies here, your employers will send men to this village looking for you. They will want to know what became of the legend they hired… what became of the great Masatane. Then the war will reach this quiet village. The last village to know peace will finally be drawn into their pointless conflict. All because you both pursued this name.”
The crowd showed open concern at his words. Farmers, merchants, and bare-shouldered servant girls all watched him in quiet desperation. He smiled. “These villagers have been kind to me. They are frightened of me because I carry a sword, yet they set their fear aside and treat me with kindness. Especially those who run the Kaishintei,” he added, nodding at the old man. “They knew I had not a simple zeni to my name, yet they have given me hot food and an adequate bed, asking for nothing in exchange. I see now that this is my chance to repay them.”
His gaze returned to the duelists. “I will not let you doom this town with your foolish pride. If you must kill each-other, then do it elsewhere. Or better yet, go back to your employers, and when your job is finished, abandon the name Masatane. You should build up your own name before you go taking the names of others.”
“You dare!?!” the stocky ronin raged. He raised his sword threateningly. “I am Masatane! Do you hear me!?”
The man in white settled into his stance again. “Your lecture is wasted,” he said coldly, “this village does not matter. What matters is the sanctity of this duel. If you don’t step aside you will be cut down.”
The ronin in brown unleashed his voice. He leapt, sword flashing downward with terrible power. The ronin in white lowered himself and reached for his blade.
“Then I guess I must defeat you both,” the ronin in black said.
The movement was slight, like the release of a calm breath. The ronin in black pulled his sword with a flick, so only mere inches of the blade actually exposed from the saya. The handle of the sword drove just beneath the sternum of the charging ronin with an abrupt crunch. The ronin’s eyes rolled back as his breath and strength rushed from him, leaving him limp and feeble as he crumpled to the dirt and lay still.
At the same time, with his other hand he had also pulled his saya away from the blade. It pulled back only a few inches, but with all of his strength it was driven into the center of the slender ronin’s chin, resounding with a loud crack. The duelist’s expression weakened as his head coiled back from the strike, and then he pitched forward, unconscious. He fell, landing cheek first in the dusty road.
Both men lay unconscious at the dirty ronin’s feet. He had not even fully drawn his blade.
It was some time before the crowd finally moved, the sort of slow dispersion that came from collective shock. They’d just witnessed the sort of event that one could only speak of much later, long after the fog of disbelief had finally lifted. Even so, they murmured softly to one another. As they departed, they cast glances at the victorious ronin, his back to them. His long hair was dirty and stiff, his black kimono nearly grey with dust. They wanted to remember what he looked like just then, standing over his vanquished enemies. He kept his face hidden from them until they were gone.
The old man approached, smiling. “I trust they will live?”
The ronin nodded. “Have someone drag them to the crossroads beyond the village. They won’t feel much like fighting when they awaken, but if they insist on continuing at least they won’t be here.” He sighed and then regarded the old man with smiling eyes. “I’m afraid I must leave now, Tashi. They’ll be looking for me before long. I thank you for your kindness.”
The old man bowed. “I thank you, noble samurai. You always have a meal and room waiting for you at the Kaishintei. I promise.”
As the old man turned away, the ronin made to leave, but found someone now stood in his path. It was the young boy from before. He stared with wondering eyes.
“You are Masatane,” he breathed, “aren’t you?”
The ronin paused, then shrugged. “There is a Masatane in every province,” he replied, “throughout all of these lands. How can anyone be sure?”
With an enigmatic smile, the ronin walked away. He vanished into the tall grasses beyond the village. Into legend.