The trials and difficulties of the Great Clans are enormous things, never expressed more perfectly than in the conflict of one samurai with another.
Ripples across the Water
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The doorway to the dojo slid open with an audible hiss. It was one of the larger dojo in the military district of theSecondCity, and although different clans made use of it throughout the day, it was generally accepted that on the fourth day of each week, the Lion made exclusive use of it. It was simply a tradition that had arisen over the years it had been in service. There were other clans that had their own traditions at different dojo, but not this one, and not on this day.
Shiba Kudome smiled slightly as she slid the door closed behind her. “I hope I am not intruding,” she said in a pleasant tone. “I was given to understand that this was one of the finest dojo in the city. I am a recent arrival and I find myself in need of practice to hone my skills.”
The assembled Lion stared at her, and Kudome could almost sense some unspoken communication passing among them, despite that they looked only at her and not at one another. One of them, she was not sure which, spoke. “This is a closed session for samurai in service to the Lion Clan. It would be best if you left.”
“Oh?” she asked, keeping her tone light, almost playful. “More’s the pity. I asked where I might find the finest swordsmen in the city so that I might spar with a worthy opponent. Are you suggesting that there is none among you who is worthy?”
There was an almost audible bristling among them at that, and several moved their hands toward their weapons. “Enough of your word games,Phoenix,” one of them replied. His tone was calm, even, almost unconcerned. “If it is a fight you seek, I will gladly give you one. Then you can take your leave and we shall resume our training.”
“Wonderful.” Kudome removed her blades and offered them to one of the dojo attendants with a bow. The attendant returned the bow and offered a bokken in return. Kudome tested the wooden blade’s weight and waved it slowly through the air. Nodding appreciatively, she bowed to the dojo’s shrine, then stepped onto the practice mat. “May I ask your name?” she inquired, glancing at the Lion warrior who was making similar preparations.
“I am Akodo Michitsu,” the warrior said. “I am a taisa of the Colonial Lion forces and practitioner of the Golden Lion style.” He bowed, but there was little courtesy in his eyes. “I have grown weary ofPhoenixarrogance in this city, and I believe my men share the same opinion. I am afraid you walked into the wrong dojo today, friend Shiba.”
A smile played on Kudome’s lips, and she adopted a fighting stance. “Well, let us see if you are correct, shall we?”
* * * * *
“You walked into the wrong tea house, Mantis,” Kakita Mitohime said slowly, placing her cup back on the table without looking at him.
“We shall see if you are correct,” the warrior said. His voice was thick with anger. The young duelist could hear it dripping from every word, lending a ragged quality to his voice that she recognized as incredibly dangerous. Men with that sort of rage did not care if they lived, only that their enemies died. It was not the sort of man one should face in combat lightly.
Finally, Mitohime looked up at the man, taking in his appearance, the position of his weapons, the style of his armor… every detail was instantly processed. “I do not know you,” she said flatly.
“You do not have to know me,” the man said. “Some filthy Crane like yourself killed my brother Tsang in the Colonies. All my life I have watched your clan revel in your wealth and status, all the while seeking sympathy for the difficulties you have endured since the Destroyer War.” His face contorted with the intensity of his rage. “Did you think you could get away with such behavior forever?” He kicked over a table, sending tea and peasants scattering in every direction. He was shouting now. “Did you not think there would be consequences for your arrogance?!”
Everyone else in the tea house was rushing for the exits. It was obvious now to Mitohime that this situation was not going to be resolved in a peaceful manner. She thought back to how she had sworn to herself to participate in no more unsanctioned duels and felt a wave of shame that she would be breaking that oath so soon. However, she was certainly not going to succumb to the even greater shame of allowing some nameless Mantis buffoon to kill her in a tea house just to keep her internal promise. “You know nothing of consequences,” she said in a low, menacing tone. “If you survive to see tomorrow, however, you will be an expert.”
The Mantis released an inarticulate noise of pure rage and turned. For a moment, Mitohime thought that he was turning to leave, and had just enough time to feel a mixture of both relief and disappointment, but of course that was not what was happening. As the man spun, a length of chain snaked out from his robe, gaining speed. By the time he turned back to face her, a large iron ball at the end of a considerable length of chain was soaring through the air at incredible speed, little more than a gray blur. Mitohime threw herself backwards from the table at the last moment before it shattered the wood where she had been only a heartbeat before. Even as she regained her footing, her mind was racing. “Tanuki-jutsu?” she half-shouted and half-laughed. “Is this a joke?”
The man had the opposite length of chain spinning as he wound the first. “Laugh if you like, Crane,” he snarled. “When your skull has been split open and the infamous Scarred Blade of the Crane’s brains are spilled on the ground, we shall see whose style is celebrated.”
Mitohime’s katana was in her hand. With her left, she withdrew a small throwing blade from her obi and flicked it at the Mantis’s head with a practiced motion. It amounted to nothing, for the man deflected it with his spinning chain. “You die today, Crane,” he said. “If you wish to even bleed me, you will have to try much harder than that.”
* * * * *
“Is this all you have?” the Crab bellowed. “You’ll have to try harder than that!” Hida Chiyurei threw his hands up as if perplexed, and the other Crab warriors all roared in approval. The massive berserker was free from wounds, for although his knuckles were bloodied, it was not his blood. “I cannot believe these men call you sensei!”
The young ronin stood, wiping blood from his lip. The various ronin assembled behind him did not cheer as the Crab did, but they did not need to. Zansho could feel the intensity of their support, wiling him to win against the much larger opponent. “I cannot believe that your men are afraid to speak to your face the names they call you behind your back.”
The grin on Chiyurei’s face faltered. “That will cost you a broken limb, boy,” he muttered. “Feel free to pick arm or leg.”
“I have just the limb in mind,” Zansho assured him, then ducked under the enraged Crab’s punch. It was fortunate that he was gifted with quick reflexes, because Chiyurei’s strikes had been excruciating to endure before he had made the Crab angry; now he suspected that if the berserker were to land a blow it might kill him outright. Chiyurei’s wrath had caused him to overextend himself somewhat, and Zansho did not hesitate to capitalize upon his mistake, kicking him in the ribs with every bit of force he could muster. He was rewarded with numbness spreading through his leg from the force of the impact, and a mild grunt of discomfort from the much larger warrior.
“Why are you even here?” the Crab asked, circling, looking for an opening. “What is the point? There’s no need of a Twenty Goblin Winter. You and those other strays will never become Crab, no matter how many of our men we send to the Colonies.” He lunged, narrowly missing the ronin’s throat.
Zansho followed up with a quick strike to the back of the Crab’s skull, which left his knuckles ringing but had no appreciable effect on his opponent. “I need no mon,” he said calmly. “I need a lord so I can wield a blade in his name. If that means he pays me instead of me joining his family, I care not.”
Chiyurei lunged again, faster this time, and got a grip on Zansho’s do-maru. He hurled the ronin through the air. Only Zansho’s frantic twisting in midair managed to avoid him crashing into the rocks on the ground. Still, the air was forced from his lungs. “You’re an odd little thing,” Chiyurei grunted. “You don’t seem to care much about the money.”
“I don’t care about money,” Zansho groaned, forcing himself to his feet again. “I care about honor.”
* * * * *
“Your clan may care nothing for its promises, but all samurai should care about their honor,” Shinjo Katsuo pointed to the other man with his blade. “Your Champion has insulted the Living Goddess, and I will not stand for it. Show me your stance.”
Mirumoto Michi’s expression did not change. “I understand you are distressed, but you are making a terrible mistake,” he said flatly. “Do not invite me to draw my steel. It will not end well for you.”
“It cannot end well for me until I avenge the honor of my Lady,” Katsuo pressed. “I am more fortunate than you in that, for no matter how it ends for you, your honor remains sullied.”
“Stop now,” Michi warned. “Say nothing more. Find another outlet for your grief.”
Katsuo shook his head slowly. “I am unlikely to have a chance to kill your Champion,” he said. “You will have to suffice.”
Michi nodded and unsheathed his blade. The tassels that hung from its hilt were multi-colored. “I am sorry that you feel this is necessary. Know that I hold no ill will for you, but for your insult, I will do what I must.” He offered a perfunctory salute in the style of theIronMountaindojo, then assumed a kenjutsu stance.
Katsuo’s demeanor changed at once, his fury evaporating and the cold certainty of battle settling over him like a comforting blanket. He knew what battle was like, and anger in the midst of it would ill serve him. He adopted a stance and waited.
The moments ticked by as both men stared at one another in a manner more commensurate with an iaijutsu duel than the kenjutsu battle that the men had, by dint of their stances, selected. Katsuo watched carefully, looking for any sign of movement from his opponent. Then, finally, there it was. The tiniest flicker, perhaps no more than the wind blowing the tassels on Michi’s hilt, but it was enough. Katsuo lunged darted forward with all the speed he could muster, bringing his blade up at a diagonal angle that was notoriously difficult to block. Unfortunately, the Mirumoto style was well suited to the defense, it seemed, and Michi turned the blade aside, at least partially, with his katana while simultaneously lashing out with his wakizashi.
Katsuo felt the tip of his blade slicing his opponent just as he felt the Dragon’s steel biting into his side. The two men moved past one another, wheeling rapidly to face each other again. Both held their weapons at the read, but Michi favored his right arm, while Katsuo moved one hand to his side and winced at the wetness he found there.
The two men advanced at one another again, wordlessly.
* * * * *
The rain drenched the night utterly, the clouds hiding the moon and the only illumination in the tiny, nameless village coming from a handful of sheltered lanterns that seemed to do more to emphasize the darkness than to dispel it. The two men said nothing, leaping wordlessly from building to building in what should have been an explosive, overwhelming combat, but which was conducted with barely a sound. Only the muffled thud of impact from unarmed blows and the whisper of clothing could be heard, and then only if someone was attempting to discern the combat, as the two men moved from one building to another.
Soshi Kodanshi spun left to avoid a knife-hand strike and kicked his opponent hard in the knee. Or he thought it was the knee. It was difficult to say with an enemy such as this, one whom he had initially assumed was a member of the Order of the Spider but whom observation had led him to believe may be something altogether different. Something not quite human. But that suited Kodanshi’s needs perfectly, and so he lent his strikes an extra effort, that little bit more that a trained warrior exerted when he was looking not to disable but to kill. If he was wrong, and he killed this monk, he would discard the body somewhere discreet and begin again. But if he was correct, then he would need the additional effort if he had any hope of winning against a creature of darkness.
His opponent made an unpleasant hissing noise and moved with a speed that no human could ever manage, striking at Kodanshi’s chest with both hands in an open-palm strike that shoved him forward with the same force a man might experience when trampled by a horse. His air chuffed out around his mask, and he felt himself falling into the open air beyond the inn’s roof. He remained calm, crushing the panic that instinctively rose up in his chest, and instead threw his chain blade, hooking the edge of the roof and twisting so that his momentum did not carry him into a precarious position, but instead swung him up around the other side of the roof so that he landed, just barely, on the other edge of the corner.
The Spider made a strange, hissing sound that Kodanshi realized after a moment was laughter. He felt annoyance, but it was the same as feeling a mild itch somewhere that was easily ignored. “The dragon,” he said, his voice just loud enough to carry across the rain-streaked roof. “My master seeks the dragon. Tell me where it is.”
The thing laughed again. “You are a fool.”
Kodanshi brandished his blade. “You will tell me,” he promised. “Or I will kill you and find another. And in the end, your dark master will have no servants left.”
The laughing shadow continued, and gestured for Kodanshi to attack.
Kodanshi nodded. The time for talk was over.