by Thomas R. Grable
Daidoji Gobei’s yari swung in a whistling arc, meeting only air. His opponent swayed like a willow in the wind, and snapped back to deliver a vicious slash with his katana to Gobei’s head, which was blocked by only the barest of margins. The Scorpion’s smile beneath his mask grew wide as he danced back out of range, and his derisive laughter echoed in the mountain pass.
“You are slow as a tortoise, Crane. Perhaps you should join their clan.”
Gobei ignored the taunt. He waited, his yari held with butt high, point low. He concentrated on his opponent’s body, not his voice.
“Do not fear, Crane. I promise it won’t hurt… for more than a moment.”
Like a streak of crimson lightning, the Scorpion glided in for the kill, moving to Gobei’s right. The point of Gobei’s yari swept up to meet him – and met only air again. The Scorpion’s cunning feint had deceived him, and the real attack came from his left in a flash of steel. Gobei felt the blade bite into his side, felt it crunch through armor to grate on bone as the edge slid along his ribs.
Once again, the Scorpion danced back. “First blood to me, Crane,” he laughed, “and the last.”
He began gliding in once more.
The universe was a tiny tree, bent and twisted into a pleasing form. Painstaking care led it to parallel the great knotted oak that spread above it, from which sang the nightingale. It was living art, a wondrous mixture of nature and botanical magic.
Long hours did Gobei sit, in rapt fascination by the delicate beauty of the bonsai. The gardens of the Crane saw visitors come and go, but Gobei remained, hypnotized. The sun began to set, and Gobei saw how the light painted the leaves a fiery red, reflected in the great tree above him. It took his breath away.
As the last of the light died away, turning to grey the colors of his sight, he felt a sweet, sharp pain in his soul. He then felt a sweet, sharp pain in his head, as the shaft of the yari clipped the back of his skull. Lightning exploded behind his eyes, and he heard the shout of his sensei behind him.
“What have you been doing? You were not on the practice field!”
Gobei quickly rolled into a kneeling bow before his sensei. “Gomen nasai, sensei!
Please forgive me! I lost track of the time. I – I was looking at the bonsai…”
“Bonsai? You abandoned your duties, your training, for this?” Daidoji Yuzo lifted the tiny thing in his hand, his brows knit in anger. He made to smash it on the ground in his contempt, but Gobei shouted, “Please, sensei, no! Punish me, but do not destroy the tree.”
He beat his head into the ground before his instructor, tears streaming down his face.
The Scorpion began moving to the right once more. Gobei was determined not to make the same mistake twice. He began moving his yari to intercept, then as his opponent’s feet began to sidestep, swept it suddenly to the left, anticipating the Scorpion’s trick. His foe, however, had faked him out again, and Gobei felt the blade strike through his armor once more, drawing a line of blood down his right arm.
The Scorpion’s dance took him beyond the range of Gobei’s yari once more. From behind, Gobei could hear the gasp from Asahina Mariko, the Crane diplomat he was protecting. He could spare her no attention; he had to remain focused on the Scorpion.
His opponent pirouetted, his blade flashing in the light. His mocking laughter rang out, full of self-assured confidence. “Once, twice, thrice, Crane. Three times my blade will find you, and then no more.”
The Scorpion’s grin was full of evil merriment as he began his glide.
Yuzo looked down at his student. His anger demanded the tree be destroyed, but his will overrode his rage. “Why does this small thing matter so much to you, Gobei? What is its importance?”
Gobei stammered, “Because i-it is a reflection of what I try to make of myself, sensei. Life is free and undisciplined, but bound by the will of the gardener, the tree assumes a form of rare perfection. That perfection is what I try to achieve in my training, to make myself into the perfect bushi.”
Yuzo snorted. “Perfection? How will you achieve perfection in bugei, when you miss your lessons while staring at a TREE?!?” Enraged, the man hurled the delicate thing to the ground.
Gobei’s heart burst as the tiny tree was smashed. He reached out to take its broken husk into his hands.
Yuzo strode off in anger. “You will practice day and night, Gobei. You will not shirk another lesson.”
Death glittered on the edge of the Scorpion’s blade. It was clear that he was more experienced than his foe, more cunning, and much faster. He was confident of victory.
With Lady Mariko behind him, Gobei had nowhere to go. He was charged with her protection, and that duty superseded any thoughts of flight. He had to win, to keep her safe.
Expecting the same scenario to play out as before, the Scorpion moved in, assured of victory. Gobei did not wait, but instead suddenly surged forward. Taken aback, the Scorpion gave ground, his blade batting frantically at the spear point before his eyes. For the first time, his confidence wavered.
Now Gobei was the one to dance back, and set his spear once more. The Scorpion looked flustered for a moment, then his confident smile returned. He laughed, “Well played, Crane. I will remember you fondly among my kills. When you enter Jigoku, tell them Bayushi Ochio sent you.”
He surged in, fast as thought. Gobei swayed to the left, avoiding the Scorpion’s stroke by a hair’s breadth, and the butt of his yari made sharp contact with the man’s jaw. The Crane reversed the direction of the spear, bringing the blade singing towards the man’s neck, but the Scorpion was too fast. He ducked beneath the arc, only to bring his sword up in a lightning thrust that ripped through the Crane’s belly. The point of the Scorpion’s katana emerged from Gobei’s back, dripping the Crane’s life blood.
Victory flashed in the Scorpion’s eyes, only to be replaced by shock as Gobei reversed his yari and plunged it down to impale the Scorpion from shoulder to crotch. The Scorpion went limp, collapsing to his knees. He looked up at the Crane in disbelief, who gritted his teeth as he pulled the sword from his body. Ochio’s eyes began to glaze over as death approached.
So too did the eyes of the Crane. The sword fell from his nerveless fingers, and his legs began to tremble and grow weak. He fell to his knees, staring into the dying Scorpion’s eyes.
“Once, twice, thrice, you said, and no more,” Gobei coughed, the blood bright scarlet upon his lips. “You were right.”
He laughed, but effort brought a fresh spray of blood from his mouth. With the last of his strength draining from him, he intoned, “When you enter Jigoku, Ochio-san, tell them Daidoji Gobei sent you.”
Blackness enveloped them both.
Daidoji Gobei threw himself into his lessons with renewed fervor. Yuzo drove him hard, testing the limits of his endurance. Though beaten and battered, Gobei always fought on. In fact, he seemed to become more dangerous the more he was hurt. Yuzo was pleased at his student’s progress.
After two months of this grueling schedule, the boy really seemed to be turning into a true warrior. Yuzo let none his pride show, instead displaying only a face of stony indifference. He drove the boy harder than his peers, seeing a rare potential that few possessed.
Yuzo, tired from the day’s training, walked through the gardens. He looked on the sands of the garden, raked with care into patterns calculated to entrance the mind. The harmonious balance between sand and stone evoked a quiet tranquillity that Yuzo cherished. The rumble of thunder rolled over the hills, and Yuzo smelled the scent of approaching rain.
His steps led to a quiet corner of the garden. He almost passed it by, but he saw it from the corner of his eye. Tucked away, almost hidden, he saw the tree.
Somewhere a nightingale was singing. Gobei felt a soft hand caress his forehead, heard gentle words from a woman’s throat. He opened his eyes, surprised to find himself in the world of the living. He started to rise, but sharp pain wracked his body.
“Lie still, Daidoji-san. Your wounds are still very bad.”
Gobei struggled to keep the blackness from claiming him again. Only his iron will kept him from slipping into unconsciousness, and death.
The voice of Mariko went on. “I have invoked the spirits to heal your wounds. They have answered my prayers, but even so, it will be some time before you are whole again. The scorpion’s blade pierced your liver, the seat of your life.”
He felt the pain of each wound still, but it was now a dull ache. He took a deep breath, and felt his ribs scream in protest.
“You were very brave, Daidoji-san,” she said. “I owe you my life.”
“I think you have repaid that debt, Lady Mariko.”
“Lie still, Daidoji-san, and sleep. You need your rest.”
“Iyei, my Lady. Your duty is to travel to the lands of the Crab; mine is to protect you.”
Gobei summoned his willpower, and focused it into one supreme effort. He sat up, bringing a fresh wave of agony. He stretched out his hand.
“Hand me my spear.”
Mariko’s eyes went wide. With a trembling hand, she placed the weapon into the bushi’s hand. It pained her to watch the warrior as he used the spear to lever himself up. She moved in to help him to his feet.
He turned his gaze upon her, and his eyes were like steel. “I am sorry that your bearers have fled, Lady Mariko. It seems we shall have to walk.”
That gaze brooked no argument. “Hai, Daidoji-san. Hai.”
The bonsai, broken in his fury, had been carefully replaced in its planter. He looked at the tiny limbs, cracked and twisted, and his heart felt a stirring of pity. He picked it up delicately, looking at how Gobei had worked with care to heal the damage done to it. Such care and concern, for such a tiny thing.
The winds grew stronger, and the garden was illuminated by a massive lightning stroke. Thunder split the air as the bolt of lightning struck the oak, shattering its limbs like a blow from a giant. The smell of ozone filled the air, and Yuzo looked up at the visage of the great tree.
His gaze fell to the bonsai in his hands. The two were once again in harmony, strange as that seemed. The great and the small, mirrored, the one in the other.
And in that moment, Yuzo understood what Gobei saw.