Title: Ronin Note
By: Dr. Kim-chan
Author's Note: Though we still got a ways to go until the story picks up the pace, I actually won't focus too much on Near's time at the House of Watari; a couple more stories, but the majority of the first part of the story will focus on Ryuuzaki-sensei.
Oh, and I forgot to mention—since Chapter Five, each chapter about the House of Watari has focused on a season of the year. "Bittersweet Odango" took place in winter, and "Fighting Fog" was in spring. Now this chapter is in summer, and it'll go full-circle back to winter, covering Ichiro's first full year at the House of Watari, and then we'll change tack.
And again, thank you, everyone who reads, reviews, and faves. This'll be quite a project, and I need the support.
So read on!
"Yamamoto Kichizaemon was ordered by his father Jin'emon to cut down a dog at the age of five, and at the age of fifteen he was made to execute a criminal. Everyone, by the time they were fourteen or fifteen, was ordered to do a beheading without fail…
…A long time ago this practice was followed, especially in the upper classes, but today even the children of the lower classes perform no executions, and this is extreme negligence. To say that one can do without this sort of thing, or that there is no merit in killing a condemned man, or that it is a crime, or that it is defiling, is to make excuses…" – Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo
The heat of August came down on the House of Watari like an overpowering wave, with little relief for its hard-studying students.
At nights, the shoji screens in the bedchambers would be left open to let in the breezes, the sound of wind bells hanging from the eaves chiming over the buzz of insects. Everyone became light sleepers as the humid nights passed, adjusting themselves every hour or so, and once in a while a loud 'swish' would fill the air as Jiro used his Bittersweet Odango technique to impale a bug.
Behind the horse stalls, there was a path that cut through the forest and led to the banks of a small stream. Ichiro visited this place sometimes in the mornings, either to get away from Jiro or simply to think, and he selfishly thought of it as his personal place whenever other students weren't taking their baths here, so he was surprised to find that it had long since been a cool summer retreat for the House of Watari, including Ryuuzaki-sensei himself.
Even the classes' workload seemed more difficult. If nothing else, the House of Watari was strict; the world didn't stop for summer heat, and in fact served as a lesson to endure extreme conditions. Certainly all the heat had something to do with the changing attitudes, but Ichiro could actually pinpoint a valid, if not vague reason.
It had been four months since March, since the day when Ryuuzaki-sensei gave him permission to attend his special instruction.
Whenever Jiro wasn't overhearing, Mitsuo would drop hints about what he was in store for. Just as Jiro was perfecting Bittersweet Odango, Mitsuo was learning Black Stone Trap. One day, he demonstrated it on Ichiro (with his permission, of course) to show how it worked. Using his go stones, Mitsuo cast an enchantment on them before throwing them in the path of an advancing attacker. One black stone set a person backward, one white stone sent a person forwards, one white stone and one black stone together forced them to sidestep, and a circle of black stones completely immobilized them. (1)
Apparently, a warrior's techniques were tailored specifically to their personality and strengths. They learned "weak" techniques first, then moved up to strong ones. It would only be a few more months until Jiro moved on to Tears of Hell, and another year for Mitsuo until he learned Shogi Suicide. They would continue in this way until, finally, they were deemed competent enough to learn even more advanced techniques such as Bloodless Hands.
However, a strange air of gloom hung over the excitement. Ichiro's perceptions were keen, and so he knew there was something Mitsuo wasn't telling him, either out of fear or concern. Even Jiro grew less impish as the day came nearer.
Finally, one morning after breakfast, Yagami-sensei told Ichiro, Jiro, and Mitsuo to go out to the stables, where Ryuuzaki-sensei was waiting for them.
That morning, misty from a quick and heavy night rain, only added to the sense of foreboding. After washing their dishes, the three stumbled out into the brightening twilight, blinded by layers of fog.
"Keep up, Amagumo. As white as your hair is, we can just as well lose you out here," Jiro commanded.
Saying nothing, Ichiro gently climbed off the edge of the porch and tottered along, keeping an eye on Jiro's eye-catching blond hair.
Ryuuzaki-sensei was alone, rigging up a large bundle to the horse, Sweet Transience tied to his sash. He spoke only to tell Ichiro to mount the horse, and telling Jiro and Mitsuo to walk "as they did always".
For the first time in months, Ichiro saw the sight of the school disappear as they left the front courtyard and went east through the other side of the forest. The journey was quiet, save for the occasional moving of whatever was inside the bundle behind Ichiro.
About halfway through, another path widened somewhat on the right-hand side, passing under two pillars with two horizontal crossbeams, every spot of its wood painted a vibrant red. The path disappeared into the forest, and after that, nothing else could be seen, as if it led to the shadowy realm of Yomi. (2)
"That's the Shinofuyu Shrine," Ryuuzaki-sensei muttered, noticing Ichiro's curious gaze. "Maki-san officiates there with her husband, the head priest Penbar-san. It's small, but it's still one of the biggest shrines in this area."
About an hour later, the forest gave way to an open, grassy field, a town substantially bigger than Mitsusando in the middle of it. Mitsuo ventured to whisper to Ichiro that the name of the town was Shi-no-tani. (3) Surrounding it were acres of rice fields and actual gates with watchmen. Even in the early morning, everyone was awake and working. Barefoot women and children stooped over green sprouts in the mud, cultivating a crop that often paid the tax collectors before feeding the local townspeople.
Ichiro always guessed that Ryuuzaki-sensei had a reputation; this fact was only confirmed when the watchmen greeted him respectfully and immediately let him enter. As their tiny procession came through town, this reverent yet fearful attitude seemed to permeate throughout the population. Whether holding heavy loads, handling horses, or simply going to the marketplace, everyone who found themselves in the way immediately sidestepped them, even treating Ryuuzaki-sensei's students with the same admiration.
All of a sudden, however, Ichiro felt like they were intruding. The feeling in the pit of his stomach only grew worse.
They reached the other end of the town and left through the west gate, then a few more minutes until they reached another enclosed space. Another small knot of guards standing watch spotted Ryuuzaki-sensei and immediately straightened their posture.
"Good morning, Ryuuzaki-sama," the bearded one saluted. "Here for practice again, I take it?" (4)
Ryuuzaki-sensei nodded and climbed off the horse, Ichiro tentatively following him. The dark-haired samurai untied the bundle and heaved it onto one of his hunched shoulders.
"How many do you have?" Ryuuzaki-sensei asked.
"About eleven. Most of them are for theft."
Ryuuzaki-sensei chewed his thumb. "That should be enough. Bring out four to start."
"Yes sir." The bearded one turned to his subordinates. "You, tend to Ryuuzaki-sama's horse."
As the guards rushed about, Ryuuzaki-sensei calmly shuffled through the entrance, and the three boys automatically followed. Beyond the gate lay a dusty patch of land, with very few grasses growing on the edges where the land met the walls. A short row of slender wooden posts stuck out of the ground like cacti standing isolated in a desert. Another pair of doors behind these posts led to what looked like covered stables.
Ichiro looked around cautiously, at one point spotting the second guard going into them, but only until he looked at the ground did the full force of the unlabeled horror welling up within him for the past four months hit him in the gut.
At first he thought it was mud from last night's rain, but when he kicked up a lighter-colored patch of dirt, it came up dusty, already dried by the culminating heat of the day.
So the dark, irregular splatters on the ground and wooden posts were really…
"As I said, Shirakawa-san, I think you're doing well enough in your studies that you'll benefit from beginning to learn the special techniques that mark a samurai of the House of Watari. However, there are consequences that come with these powers."
"It's been relatively peaceful in this country lately, but that's no excuse for being lax. There's still always the chance that you will have to fight, and so, there's always the possibility of facing death. From founding his school, Watari-sama strove to teach techniques that minimized the possibility of bloodshed, but for all one's careful planning, whether or not there is gore, whether or not your opponent was of the truest evil, you still have to face up to the responsibility that you're taking a human life."
His deep black eyes bored down on Ichiro, who was almost afraid to stare back. During that short speech, Ryuuzaki-sensei's demeanor had changed dramatically.
"This is the Shi-no-tani Execution Grounds. Before any student takes my lessons, I bring them here to make sure that they can handle what the future holds for them." (5)
Ryuuzaki-sensei crouched down, stooping over the bundle he had brought with him, and untied the string. Inside lay three swords—not the bamboo ones they used in their classes with Ide-sensei, but gleaming slivers of cold metal sheathed in plain, unvarnished black wood, the block-like handles indistinguishable from the sheath. All of Jiro's mischievousness transformed into hardened determination as he picked up one of the swords, keeping the sheath on as he swung it slightly to get a feel for it. Mitsuo, as usual, looked as indifferent as ever.
The awkward silence was then broken as the guards brought in the four criminals Ryuuzaki-sensei specified. Dirty, clothed in tattered robes, the expressions on the condemned faces ran the gamut, from hopelessness to anger to marginal insanity. Strangely enough, none seemed to resist as the guards tied them to the posts with ropes; they had accepted their fate from the moment they had laid eyes on Ryuuzaki-sensei.
"Be grateful your execution will be delivered by the honorable Ryuuzaki-sama and his students," one of the guards told the prisoners. Tying done, the guards bowed deeply and shuffled off to the side.
Ryuuzaki-sensei stepped forward, his hand on Sweet Transience, his eyes scanning the line for the one he wanted, until finally his gaze rested on the one on the far left.
Ichiro's mouth suddenly felt dry.
Jiro's eyes gleamed.
Mitsuo's lips twitched.
It happened so suddenly.
The blade flashed in the morning sun, and his arm moved so fluidly that the three boys could tell right away that he hadn't bothered to use Bloodless Hands. As the blade swung around and reappeared over Ryuuzaki-sensei's opposite shoulder, something horrifying happened in-between.
The prisoner that had been wriggling from a knotted rope a few seconds ago now had a missing head.
"One of the images that reoccurs in my mind the most vividly was when Ryuuzaki-sensei beheaded that man," Near murmured. "All I remember is blood spraying in every direction, staining his hair, his robe, his face. The head looked as if it hung in the air for a few seconds before landing hard on the ground, like a ball. The man's eyes, his mouth…they were still open."
Linda gulped, staring at her limp pencil with widened eyes. She wasn't sure if she could bring herself to draw that particular scene.
"I think that was what ultimately changed me," Near continued. "Not my parents' deaths, not Bouzuki...I knew Ryuuzaki-sensei was a samurai, and I had imagined him defeating enemies with my doll countless times, but not until I went to the Shi-no-tani Execution Grounds did I finally realize what I had promised I would be."
"…So what did you do?" Linda asked quietly.
"I did all that I could do. I had to put fear aside. Otherwise, my coming to the House of Watari would have been meaningless."
Near sighed deeply. "Jiro went first, then Mitsuo, then me. Jiro seemed almost happy to do it; he even practiced more precise cuts such as 'cutting the sleeve' before he beheaded the second prisoner. Mitsuo wasn't as exuberant, but that seemed to be an integral part of his behavior. As for me…" (6)
Ichiro lay floating in the six-foot deep river, empty gray eyes gazing not at the straggly canopy and the moonlight filtering through the leaves, but through them. The cool water seeped through his white robe, weaving in and out of partially immersed toes and fingers, fanning out his flour-colored hair. The gentle swish of the stream filled his ears, the water itself tickling his earlobes. The summer evening weather practically turned to autumn within the cool water.
But as long as he wanted to stay in the water (and it had been about an hour so far), he couldn't wash away his memories of that day.
His basic image of Ryuuzaki-sensei didn't change. He didn't think he was any more evil or horrible; it merely gave another dimension to his personality…a darker dimension.
Right after he beheaded the criminal, Ryuuzaki-sensei had looked over his shoulder at him, Jiro, and Mitsuo, instructing them to take their turn. It was one of those profound moments that wouldn't have been as profound if Ichiro hadn't truly been paying attention to every little detail. The angle of the sun and shadows, the messy line of blood scarring his face like a single stroke on paper made by a calligraphy brush, Sweet Transience hung over his shoulder, blood dripping from the sharpest end of the sword…
There was the kind Ryuuzaki-sensei he had known for the past six months…and then there had been that Ryuuzaki-sensei. The reason they called him "sensei" and "sama".
Then there was the head beside the limp body. Looking at him as if pleading to spare his fellow criminals. Blood and tissue and sinews and bone sagging outwards from the severed neck.
It had felt so surreal, especially when Jiro and Mitsuo took their turn. Even if they had been criminals (and Ichiro had known beforehand the consequences of crime in this society), it was as if no one had died in front of them.
Technically speaking, Ichiro did wonderfully for his first time. From his classes with Ide-sensei, he had learned to strike a target while sitting and rolling around the ground, and if needed, to spring up on his feet long enough to hit higher on the body. He applied all this knowledge to his experience at the execution grounds, keeping his mind perfectly blank, and two seconds later it was over.
Well, "over" in one sense of the word.
Originally he had meant to wash up again before going to bed, but then he had took a good look at himself in the reflection of the stream, and the image of the moment when he rushed over to the stream right after they returned from the execution grounds sprang to mind.
Red mixed in with white. Purity mixed with impurity. And it would only get worse. He would graduate, become a samurai, and face death every single day.
Everything felt wrong all of a sudden. For the first time since he had arrived, he felt like he didn't belong at the House of Watari.
A bush rustled.
Ichiro splashed around until he had his feet in the water and was treading water, suddenly alert. The bush rustled again. Ichiro sank slightly until he was almost invisible, watching to see who would emerge.
Suddenly, Ryuuzaki-sensei materialized at the riverbank. The two shared a long, awkward stare, and then the dark-haired man entered the water, fully clothed and barefoot. He let himself sink completely before letting his head come up again, his hair now slicked down and tamed.
"Evening baths are rather relaxing, especially in this hot weather," Ryuuzaki-sensei commented idly. Ichiro hummed an affirmative answer, and for the next five minutes there was silence again, until Ryuuzaki-sensei broke it again with a seemingly casual remark:
"Your eyes were closed."
Ichiro looked at him quizzically. "Ryuuzaki-sensei?"
"At the Shi-no-tani Execution Grounds. Just before you swung the sword, you closed your eyes. The swing itself followed form well, as good as anyone who can swing a sword on two legs for more than five minutes, but as I said, the House of Watari is a school that believes mental power predetermines a battle beforehand."
He put his thumb in his mouth again, his eyelids lowering until he had a tired, yet strict expression on his face.
"If that prisoner had been an able opponent, you would have died."
The words struck Ichiro's chest like arrows. He sank slightly again, as if the criticism was dragging him down towards the riverbed.
"However, I think fear had very little to do with it."
Ichiro's forehead creased. "But I felt afraid."
"It was merely a change in circumstance. When you faced Bouzuki, you didn't flinch. That was because there wasn't time to think or plan. Out of choices, facing death immediately, your mind entered perfect emptiness, and your actions flowed out perfectly. However, when you're on some level anticipating the event beforehand, your mind begins to think, and your movements become mechanical, no matter how well they're carried out."
Ryuuzaki-sensei took another brief dip become resuming his speech. "A very strange paradox. You're not so much afraid of killing as afraid of gaining an unfair advantage, because then battle becomes fruitless to you. This'll have to be something you'll need to overcome in the coming years—being able to bring an empty mind to every scenario."
Ichiro sighed heavily. "So does that mean I'll have to wait for your classes?"
"Hm? No, they'll begin tomorrow, as I planned. It's just that now you've found your weakness. As strange as it sounds, identifying that is what will make you strongest."
"Like your fingers…"
Ryuuzaki-sensei glanced at his hands, now wet and beginning to prune.
Ryuuzaki-sensei paddled through the water until he touched the riverbank, then climbed out.
"You should get some sleep. I think you're clean enough already; tomorrow we'll work on cleaning your mind."
(End Chapter Seven)
1. Mitsuo's (Matt's) first technique: Black Stone Trap. It's not set on any real rules of the actual game (it sounded confusing as heck when I looked it up), but if black surrounds white on the playing board, they really can't move.
2. Yomi: not exactly hell…more like an underworld. Based on Japanese myth; one of the first two deities/creators of Japan, Izanami, descended here after dying in childbirth, and became its ruler.
3. Shi-no-tani: literally means "valley of death".
4. I should've explained this earlier. You may have noticed that some say "Ryuuzaki-sensei" and others say "Ryuuzaki-sama". Those closer to him, including his own students, call him the former (which means "teacher"), and everyone else, including his retainers, call him the latter (which means "lord"), since technically he became of high enough rank to be a leader of the House of Watari. He personally prefers to be called "sensei", because he's not much for prestige and all that.
5. As told by the excerpt at the start of the chapter, this actually wasn't uncommon. From a young age, those training to be samurai had to kill. A common way this was done was by going to the local town's execution grounds and choosing out condemned criminals to "practice on". Gruesome, huh?
6. "Cutting the sleeve" is a name for a particular type of cut. It means to sever the opponent's hand from its wrist.
See you in Chapter Eight, everyone!