Toutousai dozed through the heat of the afternoon, dreaming a particularly vivid dream of a gigantic squirrel slowly swallowing up the sun. When a sharp poke to his side abruptly woke him, he feared for an instant that it had been a prophetic dream, for he now lay in shadow. Then he realized it was merely the newcomer who'd poked him, blocking the sunlight. Toutousai had a good long scratch at the underside of his chin, yawned, and rolled onto his side, turning his back to the stranger.
He'd just gotten comfortable again and was beginning to softly snore when a toe nudged him just beneath the shoulder blade.
Toutousai groped for a blanket to pull over his head, realized he didn't have one, and settled for pulling up his kosode instead. It was so much easier to ignore annoyances when one's head was covered.
Unfortunately, this particular annoyance didn't seem to realize that. The toe of his boot jabbed again, harder. "Hey. Old man."
Giving a theatrical sigh, Toutousai sat up, pretending to notice the newcomer for the first time. He was young--almost a boy, really--with long silver-white hair and golden eyes that marked him as an inu youkai. Strong, clear facial markings, too; he came from good stock. He was poised on one booted foot, the other raised just a bit off the ground, presumably preparing to prod Toutousai's back once more. The young youkai coughed and quickly lowered his foot.
Toutousai quirked a brow, fixing the youth with his unblinking stare. "...Well?" he prompted after a moment of silence. The youth, who had been studying him with a mildly bemused expression on his face, gave a smile that bordered suspiciously on a smirk.
"I'm here for a sword."
"Oh?" Feigning puzzlement now, Toutousai kept his eyes locked on the youth. "A sword. Is that so?"
"Certainly," came the self-assured reply. Seconds crawled by as they resumed their silent staring contest until, at last, the youth's confident demeanor crumbled (as it eventually must) under Toutousai's unrelenting gaze. Suddenly hesitant, his look of mild confusion returned. "That is...Aren't you Toutousai? The sword-smith?"
"Indeed I am." Toutousai gave a solemn nod.
The youth scrutinized him a moment longer, eyes narrowing almost imperceptively. "...You're not having me on, are you?"
"Of course not!" Toutousai snapped, perhaps a bit too vehemently. He was really getting sick of people asking him that. True, perhaps age had robbed him of some of the majesty of his youth--his once flaming red hair was now thinning and liberally shot with grey; his arms now thin and sinewy where once they had bulged with muscle; his formerly ornate armored garb discarded in favor of simple robes (not a little food stained)--but his hand was as steady as it had ever been and his craftsmanship only improved as the years came on. He had half a mind to send this ignorant young pup off without another word. Three-eighths of his mind quickly whispered that, wait, business had been a little thin lately, and it couldn't hurt to at least see what the kid wanted. The remaining bit just wanted him to get back to his nap.
"No offense." The youth must have sensed he was close to losing his chance. He plunged ahead quickly. "I need a really good sword, you know? No, a great sword. And I've heard you're the best." He gave an enthusiastic smile that didn't fool Toutousai for an instant. Still, he was intrigued now.
"Heard from who, exactly?" The smith tugged at his goatee, pondering. His clientele tended to be a bit...sparse. No, wait; that didn't sound quite right. Select. Yes, that was better.
"My father. He says the one you crafted for him years ago has no equal. The balance is perfect, he says, and the blade has never grown dull. He's carried it at his hip since he was my age."
"Ah, yes. I think I remember him. Toshiro? Tomeo? Something like that?"
"Kenichi," the youth offered helpfully. "Leader of the River Land clans."
"Kenichi, that's the one." Toutousai nodded, wracking his brain to recall what exactly he'd made for the man. He seemed to recall it had been an early effort, crude but effective, forged back when he still worked exclusively in metals. Easily surpassed, especially when one took into account the new technique he had spent the last few hundred years perfecting. He turned his attention back to the youth. "And that would make you...?"
"Kanoumaru." He flashed a cocky smile. "His heir. Anyway, about that sword–"
Toutousai held up a hand, rising to his feet. "Yes, we'll talk about that. First I should warn you, though, my services are a bit expensive." He began walking toward the mountain cave that served as his home and workshop, Kanoumaru at his heels. "Beyond that, it will take some time to craft a perfect blade. Several years, at least."
Kanoumaru's face fixed into an expression that, with only a small stretch of the imagination, might be described as a pout. "So long?" He looked around as they entered the cave, picking out a katana displayed on a rack near the forge. "What about that one, with the blue enamel? It looks exquisite. Can I just buy that one?"
Toutousai shook his head. "No. It's for someone else."
"That one, then?"
The smith paused. "Well, it's not finished yet. I suppose you could, if you came back in a year or two. It'll be ready then." He scrutinized Kanoumaru. "With all honesty, having something custom made will provide the finest possible weapon."
"Can't wait that long." Kanoumaru's brow furrowed as he thought silently for a long moment. He lifted the blue-enameled katana almost reverently and hefted it in his hand, testing the balance, giving it an experimental swing. He replaced the sword, giving a low whistle of appreciation. "You're sure you can't sell this one to me?"
He deliberated a moment more, then clapped Toutousai on the shoulder. "All right. I'll come back in a year when that other one is finished. If it serves me well, maybe you can make me another later."-
It was closer to two years before the sword-smith saw Kanoumaru again. He was awake for his arrival this time, at least, though he still didn't notice the youth immediately, being intent on his work. A new sword had been commissioned, and this one was a rare challenge. He was hefting the raw material in his hands, closely examining it for any slight imperfection that might mar the finished product.
"What have you got there?" The curious voice startled him, though he gave no outward sign of being surprised. Instead, he carefully lowered the material to his lap, looking up at his visitor. Kanoumaru looked much the same, of course--a year or two was nothing to a full-blooded youkai--though it appeared he had taken to wearing his hair swept up in a high tail at the back of his head. He still had that demeanor of smug confidence, too; if anything, that had intensified.
Toutousai stood, holding up one end of the material and letting it dangle in the air. "What does it look like?"
Kanoumaru seemed wary of a trick, pausing for a moment before stating the obvious. "It's a braid." And indeed it was: a long, thick braid of the most luxuriant pale silver-blue hair one could ever hope to see, tied off at both ends with slender bands of gold. Toutousai nodded, waiting for the next question which must inevitably come. "But what's it for?"
"Out of hair? Huh."
Now Toutousai smiled, eager to launch into an explanation of his special technique. "Anyone can pound metal into a half-way decent sword. It takes a true master to temper and coax raw material of a different sort into a mighty weapon. It's more difficult, but I think you'll find the results are–"
Kanoumaru clearly wasn't listening. "Say, is there any chance you still have that other sword from before? That blue one, you know." He looked around himself, as if he might see it randomly laying about on the ground.
Toutousai heaved a weary little sigh. Today's kids: no attention span at all. "I told you before, that was for someone else. Anyway, I already sold it to him a year ago." The smith slung the shining braid over his shoulder and pointed to a bull that stood calmly grazing in the distance (a difficult task, considering what little grass grew around this rocky area was sparse and not a little crispy with heat).
Kanoumaru had the audacity to look appalled. "You...traded that sword--that magnificent sword that was easily worth a daimyo's ransom or two--you traded it for a cow?"
"It's a bull," Toutousai said petulantly. "Besides, it's a very good bull. A celestial bull."
Kanoumaru said nothing; just stared at him, unbelieving.
"He can fly," Toutousai added. "When you get to be my age, you don't always want to walk everywhere."
Still no reply.
Toutousai grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, "damn kids," and then began walking, beckoning Kanoumaru over his shoulder. "I'll sell you that other, if you still want it. I recommend having me make you one from scratch. It'll take longer, but I promise the finished product will be superior in every way."
Kanoumaru flapped a dismissive hand. "No, no. No time for that now, I told you already. I've got a name to make for myself: enemies to slay, lands to conquer, all that stuff. If I hang about too long waiting for a sword, someone else is apt to slip in and steal my thunder. No," he concluded, "it's got to be this one for now. Tell you what, though, next time I have a chance, I'll stop in and commission something better from you; how's that sound?"
It was only with tremendous effort that Toutousai managed to keep from rolling his eyes.
Another few decades passed before Kanoumaru returned, with the sword he'd bought from Toutousai still at his hip. He wore armor now, and a huge grin. In his arms he carried a massive burden, which he threw down triumphantly at Toutousai's feet. The smith raised an eyebrow as his sipped demurely at his mid-morning sake and regarded the mess of bone, blood, claw, and sinew that was now dripping ichor all over his passably clean cave floor. "Hello, Kanoumaru."
"I'm ready for a new sword now." He indicated the bloody horror at their feet. "You can probably make something really great with this, right?"
"Mm." Toutousai nodded. Clean it up a bit, and there was definitely promise. "Whose is it?"
Kanoumaru's grin, impossibly, grew even wider and more cocky. "Some dragon's. Akaryuuko."
"Ryuukossei's heir? He won't be happy about that."
Kanoumaru waved that off, managing to subdue his facial expression into one a bit more casual. "Nothing personal; he was getting a little too close to my territory, is all. I had to do something, before he undid everything I've been working on. It's just how these things go." His resolve cracked, and the grin returned. "But what a battle! You should have seen it, really. Went on for days. I have to admit there was one point when I almost thought I might be done for." He shook his head fondly at the memory. "Best time I've ever had. At any rate, when they began cleaning up the bits of him afterward, I saw this claw and remembered what you said about the custom-made weapons and raw materials and whatnot." Toutousai was a little surprised at that; he hadn't thought Kanoumaru had been listening. "So I figured, 'Why not?' And here I am."
"Here you are," Toutousai agreed. "So I take it the conquering is going well for you?"
"Oh, you know. I'm beginning to make a name for myself. Gathering a pretty good following with some of the younger inu youkai." He gave the katana at his hip a satisfied pat. "And this sword you made really is excellent. Top notch. I can't wait to see what you do with this." He nudged the dragon's claw with the toe of his boot.
The smith downed the last of his sake and tugged at his goatee, already planning.
In the time before Kanoumaru returned to claim his weapon, Toutousai had begun to hear the odd mention of his name here and there. What do you know, he thought, oddly proud, the kid actually is making a name for himself.
Kanoumaru hefted the sword, eyeing down the length of the crimson-tinged blade. "Wow. I mean, really." He performed a few quick katas and then swung the sword in a wide arc over his head, marveling at the soft whine as it sang through the air."So you like it, then." Toutousai was trying very hard to look humble, and finding it difficult. It was a damn good sword, if he did say so himself.
Kanoumaru sheathed the sword at his hip. "Of course I do. This thing is perfect." He joined the smith at his table, pouring himself a cup of sake. He drummed the fingers of one hand absently against the wood, claws leaving tiny nicks as he continued. "I'll have to come up with a really great name for it. Something really distinctive, and kind of awe-inspiring. Not too pretentious, though. Hmm..." He drank as he mulled this over.
He'd grown into a man by now, Toutousai noted; no more a youth caught half-way between child and adult. Still, the years hadn't dulled that confidence-bordering-on-outright-cockiness, nor dampened his enthusiasm. With a mild shock, the smith realized that he thought of Kanoumaru with something like affection. Despite his best efforts, he had grown fond of the kid.
"...this is going to be a really big help, too," Kanoumaru was continuing.
"Oh?" Toutousai knew by now that Kanoumaru required very little in the way of a prompt when it came to talking about his exploits.
"I'm working to unite all of the inu youkai clans. That's my big project lately." He rested his chin on a hand, looking a little glum. "It's been going all right, mostly. The only problem is, there's someone else in the west who's been doing the same sort of thing, and she's been giving me some trouble."
Toutousai perked up. "Would that happen to be Kimiko-hime?"
"You know her?"
The smith scoffed. "Of course I know her." He waved a hand in a vague motion. "You remember that sword I was working on before?"
Kanoumaru's brow furrowed. "You mean that nice blue-enameled one you traded for the cow?"
"Forget the damn blue-enameled sword! It wasn't all that great to begin with." Toutousai gulped back his sake with a vengeance. "Besides, he's a bull." He took a moment to calm himself. "No, the braid, remember? That was hers. She wanted a sword made out of her hair."
Kanoumaru wrinkled up his nose. "Women." He returned his attention to the arduous task of thinking up an appropriate name for his new sword.
The gap between visits was much shorter this time. In fact, when Toutousai returned to his cave after a quick excursion to pick up some essentials (tea, sake, rice, bread, fish, sake, fruit, vegetables, and sake), Kanoumaru was there waiting for him. From his high vantage astride the celestial bull, Toutousai could see the inu youkai was not happy. Not at all. Keeping a wary eye on his guest, the smith urged the bull in for a landing.
For a moment, Kanoumaru's piqued expression was replaced with one of mild surprise. "It really does fly. Huh. Still not worth a sword, if you ask me." This seemed to remind him of his earlier anger, and his scowl returned. "Unless maybe it's a piece-of-junk sword like this was." At these words, he flung down two broken halves of his new weapon at Toutousai's feet.
Toutousai clucked his tongue, eyeing the sword with dismay. "What did you do to it?"
"Me?" Kanoumaru's voice rose to a shout. "You're the one who made it! Eight years I waited for that sword, and was happy to pay the ridiculously high price you charged me for it, and what does it do? Breaks the first time I use it! "
Now it was Toutousai's turn to scowl. "You fought with Kimiko-hime, didn't you?"
Something about the smith's tone of voice immediately cowed Kanoumaru. "...Maybe."
"You never listen, do you?" Toutousai shook his head, scowl deepening. "When you were just here I warned you about that."
Kanoumaru blinked. "You did?"
"Yes! I told you that her sword would be the stronger, because it was forged from a part of herself. Yours is made from some spare bits of dragon you found lying around. Of course if it comes down to a clash between your sword and hers, hers will triumph." Toutousai narrowed his eyes. "You said you were listening, but you were just dreaming up some name for that sword, weren't you?"
Toutousai threw up his hands in frustration. He cast a pitying look at the broken sword on the ground. "You poor thing. You never had a chance." He sighed. "All right. This is what we're going to do." He knelt and tenderly picked up the two halves of the sword. "I'll mend this for you. It'll never be as strong as it was before, so we'll have to see about making a new one completely. In the meantime, it will serve. While I'm doing that..." He fixed a steely gaze at Kanoumaru, who looked this close to abashedly scuffing his toe in the dirt. "You: bring in my groceries."
Surprisingly, he was back again only a few months later, waltzing right into Toutousai's cave, where the sword-smith had just settled down to a nap after an early brunch. The repaired sword hung at his hip, still intact, so he must not have taken any more foolish notions about challenging Kimiko-hime into his head. Despite that, Kanoumaru was amazingly upbeat. "Things are going just great," he said before Toutousai even had a chance to speak. "So wonderful I can hardly believe it."
"Is that so?" Toutousai rubbed some of the sleep from his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I thought Kimiko-hime was giving you trouble?"
"That's the reason I've come," he said, with a moony little half-smile on his face. "I've found another solution to that problem. A much better one. Much." Here he ducked his head and--was that a giggle? "We met for a nice little chat, Kimiko-dono and I; no swords or fighting or any of that. It's surprising how much we have in common." He beamed at the smith, joy practically radiating off of him in waves. "Anyway, I'm here to invite you to the wedding."
Toutousai leapt to his feet and gave a whoop of delight. He'd grown fond of Kanoumaru, after all, and it was nice to see him so happy. A sudden inspiration struck him. "I know just the wedding gift! Close your eyes and open your mouth wide," he said, reaching for his pliers.