Dueling Swords Part 2

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Dueling Swords, Part 2 by John Burkhart

I had always been subject to a lot of rumors.

This was part of the reason I was more comfortable with animals. I'd a knack to associating with the falcons in Shiro Moto. Hunting with them was one of the easier ways to unwind when I was not on assignment to my Daimyo.

These moments of quiet never lasted very long.

I had returned from a day's hunt to find a letter from my Daimyo, Moto Zheng, waiting for me. My next assignment had presented itself to me. I was to accompany one Ide Osaru to Kyuden Doji. According to the letter, I had been personally requested by Ide Tadaji.

I took a deep breath, and went to my personal shrine. I had met Tadaji during Winter Court, and I personally admired the man. He was probably the only person who had a rougher job fitting in than I did; born physically unable to ride in a clan of horsemen. He was a man of peace with a Khan that was considering war. I did not envy his position.

I have to think this was a test. I had proven closer to his way of thinking than the Khan's in our first meeting, this had to be a way to see how much of a mindset we shared. I wish he had chosen a different one. I had never understood the Crane. I didn't have the mind for court. I preferred utility to adornment. I had a name they couldn't pronounce, and a face that caused discomfort to look at.

But I was convinced the rumor that I had impressed a Kenshinzen was the one that had led me to this particular assignment.

That particular rumor was true. In the waning hours of the day, I cleaned my armor and the kimono's I planned to carry with me. I also carefully cleaned the four blades I carried with me on the road, a simple tanto and wakazashi, the scimitar of my grandfather, and Akibannin, the duty the Kenshinzen gave me.

Ide Osaru was a smiling, pleasant faced man. His eyes were bright and alert and we exchanged bows upon meeting in the stables of Shiro Moto. I had to restrain myself from offering a handshake, no matter how much grandfather would have preferred that to a bow. I had to downplay the differences between myself and the world of Rokugani culture. I had to.

Or the Crane would eat me alive.

“I admit,” Osaru said, bringing me back to the present. “I've never been a very avid rider. I hope you can help me with that.” When Osaru brought out his horse, I could see it to be true. Osaru wasn't doing anything wrong, but he was doing everything just awkwardly enough that his steed was growing agitated.

“Certainly,” I told him. I'd had a lot of practice calming down upset horses.” It was true, I had. We were off a short time later.

To my surprise, the journey to Kyuden Doji was actually rather quiet. There were no bandit attacks, no conscriptions by magistrates into criminal investigations, no attacks by random spirit beasts. With the journeys I've had recently, this was a welcome respite.

The conversations mostly kept about Unicorn politics. Apparently, this was to be the subject of our trip: We were to arrange several of the new empire wide courier stations in Crane lands. There were a few probing questions about my past. The only open one confirmed my guess. I was actively asked to recount the story of my last visit to Crane lands.

It wasn't a story I wanted to retell. But I did, as much as I could.

“A half-gaijin?” Osaru asked, raising his eyebrows. “Descended of the Thrane?” he asked.

I sighed. That part of that particular adventure had weighed on my mind. I suppose being personally ostracized as gaijin-like had made me more sympathetic. “It's easy to dismiss all of the gaijin as being dishonorable pirates,” I said. “Their captain certainly was. But how many tragedies have been written about samurai forced to perform duties for masters that had fallen from the path of Bushido?”

“They can always ask for sepukku,” Osaru countered.

“With the stories being what they are,” I responded. “I doubt he would have accepted it. Then what's a samurai to do?”

Osaru frowned, and we rode in silence for a few moments.

“Either way, the girl was not responsible for the circumstances of her birth, and had no way to defend herself from what killed her. I can understand the anger. So many people died from that unfortunate chain of events...” I let out a breath. “I suppose it stands as a lesson for the future.”

Osaru considered this. “and I suppose it would make for excellent theater.”

I shivered at that thought. “I certainly don't want to relive it.”

I cannot claim to be the most aware of aesthetics, but even I thought Kyuden Doji was one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever seen. But as we moved into the city, the opulence began to grate on me. I understood the idea of demonstrating one's wealth, but some of these things went beyond what I considered practical.

Even our rooms were so comfortable that they were uncomfortable. There were beds of so fine that I could not get comfortable. The pillows so soft that they refused to provide any support for my head. I was tempted to use my traveling pack instead.

I told Osaru none of this, of course.

To my relief, there were only a few hours spent in the main court, just long enough to be introduced by the primary Unicorn ambassador. He pronounced my name exactly, and it is to my embarrassment I cannot remember his. The Crane were polite enough, I could see only a few disapproving looks barely concealed by fans.

After that, we spent the next few days searching through the city itself. One of the stations of the so called 'Pony Express' was to be in the grounds of the castle. We needed to find a place near the gates that also wouldn't offend delicate Crane noses.

This proved trickier than I would have thought.

On the fifth day, I was waiting in our quarters while Ide Osaru penned a letter home. I was hoping it meant we'd found a location, and were to test distances for the relay stations. Even a yojimbo could hope, right?

My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. A look from Osaru told me he wasn't done, and would rather not be disturbed.

I stood and walked out to the hallway. I can't claim to have recognized the Doji who was waiting outside. I had a vague suspicion he was one of the couriers from our original meeting, but I couldn't say that for sure. He wore standard colors of the Crane, his posture suggested he at least considered himself important.

He bowed slightly. “Moto Gonnohoyoe-sama,” he said, stumbling slightly through my name. A forced stumble, I thought. “I need to speak to Ide Osaru,” He told me. He met my eyes and smoothly added “Is he available?”

I restrained a grimace. “My apologies, Doji-san,” I said, performing a deeper polite bow. “Osaru is writing correspondence, and does not wished to be disturbed. If you wish to wait, I do not believe it will be long. He wanted me to be ready to go out again.”

The Doji nodded his understanding, and for a few minutes, we stood quietly in the hall. The Doji had given me the twice over, his eyes resting on both the scimitar in my back scabbard, and on the Crane katana resting in my daisho.

After a few minutes, he had apparently grown bored. “Gonnohoyoe-sama,” he said, stumbling in the same place he had before. “Is it true you won that blade in a duel with a kenshinzen?”

“No,” I replied. “I impressed a kenshinzen with my dueling stance and ability to strike.”

I wanted, more than anything, for Osaru to come rescue me from the nightmare of conversation with the Crane. But I had no luck.

The Doji did not look as if he believed me. If he did believe me, he did not look impressed by this alleged feat of skill. I, for one, didn't appreciate his blatantly bringing up rumors about me. His eyes latched on to my scimitar. Again.

“Did you do with the gaijin's weapon?” he asked.

I froze and my eyes went flat. It wouldn't due to offer a duel in the Doji's own house to one I didn't properly know. I surreptitiously sniffed the air, but didn't smell any sake. “No. My grandfather would have frowned on it,” I said, steadfastly ignoring the insult.

“I see,” the Doji replied, insinuating that he didn't see at all.

Another minute went by. I focused on the door that Osaru was behind, mentally willing it to open. At least so I'd have a witness.

“And is it true,” he began with the air of one proving a point to his diamyo, “that you attempted to ride one of the Battle Maiden's blessed war horses, only to be kicked off?”

I felt a chill run up my spine. There was a rumor I thought I had outrun years ago. Like many rumors, there was a seed of truth to them. Unlike many rumors, the truth wasn't any less horrific. In fact, might have been more so.

But Grandfather was fond of saying rumors don't rest – people do. And in this case, the seed wasn't something innocuous. It was arguably worse. Grandfather also said that secrets shared lost their power. In this case, the power held was over me. I wouldn't run further.

“Also not true,” I responded, my voice finally cold. “The horse accepted me as if I was her normal rider. And I was five at the time.” I didn't want to admit it, but the Doji was beginning to get to me.

This had the gratifying effect of silencing the Doji while he processed the information. “You mounted one of the Utaku Battle Steeds?” he asked me. “And you weren't thrown? Or killed by its rider?”

“I was a child,” I responded, the edge not leaving my voice. “Even the Utaku understand children do not know any better. Even if the rumor hounded me all the way through my school, where others were convinced I was a magnet for bad fortune.” That part of it had spread like wildfire.

After another moment, the door finally opened, Osaru stood, calmly looking at me.

The Doji bowed. “Hai, Osaru-sama. I would say if your yojimbo could keep his cool under direct questioning like that, he is more than ready for whatever the Daimyos of the Unicorn clan could want him for."

My anger deflated, temporarily replaced by resentment. A test? I suppose one can't be too careful, but...

The Doji's head tilted at me. “You are a most unusual Moto,” he said bowing more in respect than he had when we first met.

Was that a compliment? I bowed in response. “Thank you, Doji-san.”

Osaru smiled, “Tadaji will be most happy to know that." He studied me briefly. "Though, if he didn't realize he was being tested, maybe Kitsuki Agama didn't rub off on him as much as he would have liked." He bowed to me. "Come, Gonnohoyoe, we have further work before we are released back to Shiro Moto.”

Once the Doji was out of earshot, I finally found my voice. "I apologize if I'm being forward, Osaru-san, but tested? For what?"

Osaru's smiled mirrored one of the Lion's great cats. "Though your Gaijin 'ethics' could use a bit of tempering, You clearly think about the consequences of your actions. And, as you mentioned to my Daimyo that you wished to help protect people. What better way to do that than as an Emerald Yoriki?"