by David Thun
An old man and a young boy walked in silence down the Tachibana Road.
A group of peasants working in the fields alongside the road stopped to stare as they passed, for the two made an unusual pair. The boy was perhaps thirteen years of age, small but well-built, dressed in the blue silk of a nobleman’s son. His dark hair was worn long, the tail dyed white in the fashion of a Crane Clan youth. He wore no weapon, and when he smiled the younger peasant girls in the field blushed and covered their faces.
In contrast, when the old man walked past, crows flew from the fields squawking in fear. His faded gray robes looked as if they had been slept in, and his tangled, unbound hair matched the color of his robes. His arms and chest were wiry and criss-crossed with scars. But the hilts of his swords were bright and well-cared for, and his unblinking black eyes seemed to take in everything around them – even when he wasn’t looking.
“Hoturi-kun,” said the old man, suddenly coming to a halt.
“Hie, Toshimoko-sensei!” the boy said, snapping his attention away from the field where the pretty girls were working.
“Are you staring at those peasant girls?”
Doji Hoturi gulped. He knew if he answered truthfully, he would most likely get into trouble. But he also knew if he lied, he would most likely get into big trouble.
“Hai, sensei,” he gulped.
“Good,” said Toshimoko, starting forward again. “If you aspire to be a kengo – a master of the sword – you should always be aware of what’s around you.” he scratched his chin in a philosophical way. “Especially when pretty girls are involved.”
Hoturi blinked in confusion. He was, after all, only thirteen.
Altogether, the old man and the boy made for a peculiar spectacle. But peasants everywhere are a practical lot, and when peasants in Rokugan are faced with a peculiar spectacle, the safest solution is to bow deeply and hop it goes away on its own. This time, however, it didn’t work.
A clanging of metal and a chorus of hoarse shouts rang out behind the pair.
“What’s that?” The boy spun completely around, but the old man remained where he was.
“That,” Kakita Toshimoko said, is not a pretty girl.
Standing in the road behind the pair was a burly samurai wearing the colors of a Lion Clan warrior. His fleshy face was mottled with rage, and a jeweled katana was in his hand. The creak of armor laced with silken cord, the rustle of his bronze horsehair plumes, every part of the samurai seemed to sing a song of anger. Even the ivory band holding his warrior’s topknot in place seemed to quiver with barely-suppressed rage. The peasants glanced up at his arrival, sighed, and quickly ducked their heads again.
The Lion samurai roared in outrage.
The old man lifted his head a little, but still did not turn.
The Lion samurai glares. “I am Matsu Shigatori! I have come to the capital to test my sword against yours. For five days and four nights, my messengers have carried challenges to your dojo. For five days and four nights, you have ignored them! And now, in order to face you, I must chase after you like an alley dog? You are a coward!”
The boy glared and stepped forward, but stopped as Toshimoko lifted his hand.
“I receive many challenges,” said the old man. “What did you say your name was again?”
“Matsu Shigatori! I slew six Scorpions at the battle of the White Pines! It was I who faced Hida Matahachi in battle with my blade broken – and still bested him in single combat at the Sengyo Bridge. It was I -”
“Oh yes,” Toshimoko said, cutting him off in mid-shout. “Shigatori. Careless of you to break your sword.”
The boy watched with interest as the Lion’s face flushed several different shades of purple. Shigatori sputtered and choked, but said nothing else.
“At the moment,” Toshimoko continued, “I am occupied with other matters. I am escorting my student, Hoturi-kun, on a training journey,” he gestured, and the boy bowed politely as he had been taught, “and will be gone for a day or two. Afterwards, however, you are welcome to make an appointment at my dojo. Beginner’s classes start at the Hour of the Hare…”
“Beginner? Beginner!” Shigatori shrieked. Swinging his katana over his head, he charged forward.
Toshimoko’s shoulders twitched, and his katana – still sheathed in its saya – was in his hand. His wrist flickered, there was a sharp crack! crack! like a woodpecker at its favorite tree, and two bright bruises blossomed on Shigatori’s face. A small step to the right, a sound like laundry beaten with ironing sticks, and Shigatori lay unconscious on the road, his jeweled sword broken in two.
“Your elbow was bent,” Toshimoko remarked as he returned his own weapon to his belt. “No wonder you break your swords.” He glanced at Hoturi. “Student, come here.”
“Yes, sensei?” Doji Hoturi asked, running forward. His eyes shone with admiration.
Toshimoko pointed. “Kindly rummage through that man’s money pouch and fetch me two gold koku.”
Hoturi blinked. After all, rummaging through purses is not something a well-bred Crane youth is known for. “Sensei? Isn’t that stealing?” he asked.
Toshimoko stared at him. Hoturi knew that stare very well. The boy gulped, gingerly fished two gold coins from Shigatori’s pocket, and silently handed them to Toshimoko. the old man tossed the coins in the air, caught them, and smiled thinly.
“Private lessons,” Toshimoko said, “cost extra.”
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