eeking Sparrow paused with his lecture and breathed in. 'Iitenki, and not a day too soon,' he thought, smiling. Good weather meant good morale.
He swept his gaze once more at his battalion seated around him. They sat cross-legged on the grass at the edge of the ring, their bokken on the ground to their left. He continued his lecture.
"The rule of combat has been summarized by the legendary swordsman One River Stalking Jaguar. His words were, 'Know sky, know earth, know enemy, know victory.' Please repeat them."
The men said the words as if intoning a prayer. From the corner of his eye, Seeking Sparrow saw Running Stag hide a smile with his hand, amused by how the captain was making his battalion repeat idioms like school children. Sparrow had promoted him to lieutenant, but his friend had lost none of his cheekiness. It didn't matter. The lesson was an important one. He continued, "Can anyone explain what Stalking Jaguar meant with 'know sky'?"
There was a pause, then a man raised his hand. "I believe he meant, be aware of the weather."
"Right. One must take into account the weather before initiating an attack. This is a summarization of your lessons on timing. As such, attack only on days where the weather suits your plans. What about the next line?"
A soft-spoken woman, Fleeting Cloud, followed her comrade's line of thinking. "With 'know earth,' he must have meant 'take into account the terrain.'"
"Correct," replied Sparrow. "Terrain is of equal importance. Stalking Jaguar has made an exhaustive study on the strategic advantages gained from forests, high land, valleys, bridge battles, fighting in open terrain and fighting under cover. He stresses that location plays a huge part on success and failure in battle. A wise strategist always keeps this in mind. And the final line?"
Another student, Leaping Tiger, spoke up. "With 'know your enemy', Stalking Jaguar meant 'be aware of your enemy's movements, the size of his army, the weapons he has at his disposal, and his mode of attack."
Sparrow replied, "Correct, but incomplete. With 'know your enemy', he also meant know your opponent's motives and his willingness to fight. He meant know your enemy's heart. This is done by combining infiltration with clever insights into human nature. Only the greatest generals have done this well." He paused, "Our departed daimyo, One Human Rising Spirit, was one such man. By discerning his opponents' motives, he was able to determine beforehand their actions. He won one hundred victories as leader of the Kensai." He stopped. He did not want to relate what happened on the one hundred-first battle. His heart knew that one all too well.
"This concludes our lecture for the day," Sparrow said. "Keep what you have learned here in mind. You will find use for them someday, not necessarily in combat." He turned to his lieutenant. "Seven Motion Running Stag, please ready the battalion." Running Stag leapt to his feet and barked a command. The battalion quickly stood to attention, bokken held at rest in their left hands. On a second command, they bowed as one to their captain. On a third, they straightened.
Sparrow bowed in return. When he spoke again, most of the formality was gone from his voice, and was replaced by his usual cheerfulness. "Yare, yare, what shall we do now that training and lectures are over? Shall we have a practice session? Perhaps a duel?"
Murmurs of approval swept through the group. Already their eyes were marking one another for partners. But Sparrow raised his hand for silence.
"Before any of you do any muscling around," he said, his smile widening, "I would like to throw down the first challenge. I haven't dueled in two weeks and I think I'm getting out of practice. Well, any takers?"
All he received was a collective groan. "Captain," said one man, "my arm still aches from that blow you gave me two weeks ago!"
Sparrow rolled his eyes. "Am I training samurai or sissies? Isn't anyone taking my challenge? How about you, Hidden Serpent?" Said man stepped back, smiling apologetically.
Running Stag said, "If the captain would agree to take us all on, then I'm sure the group would be more partial to a duel."
Sparrow scratched his ear, a childhood habit. Thirty-two against one would be rather extreme, he thought. He didn't want to injure ALL of his men. He still had to assign some for latrine duty. Running Stag was already first on his list.
He was about to say half would do when a female voice called out from behind the troop. "I believe Six Moon Seeking Sparrow would like a bit more of a challenge than what his men can offer."
The young captain was sure his heart did not beat for several seconds. His men turned around to look at the newcomer, but he did not need to see her to know who it was. The voice came again, closer now. "Perhaps a woman can prove equal to the task?"
The crowd parted as his master's widow, One Human Endless Sky slowly approached. Sparrow regained enough presence of mind to give respect. He called his men to attention and bowed. "Taisho," he said. "We are honored."
Lady Sky was in her training gear, the same white gi and blue hakama that all Kensai wore. She had tied her ebony hair back in a long ponytail and had worn a bandanna to keep it from her eyes. Her hands were hidden in her long, blue-trimmed sleeves. Her katana, Falling Flower, was tucked into the black sash around her waist. She stopped at the edge of the ring and returned their bow. Sparrow straightened and smiled at her. It was an altogether different smile from his usual one—it was small, humble, gentle.
"How fairs training today, Six Moon?" she asked.
"I am pleased to report that we are almost done learning the eighth kata of Shin-Kyuten-ryuu. I believe we will be done in two days." Then he added, "Please do not misunderstand my men, taisho. They are in a good mood due to the fair weather, and I have been too lenient with them. They are ready to do battle at any time."
Lady Sky smiled at this. "Six Moon, their reluctance is not a reflection of their character, but a reflection of the skill of their captain."
Sparrow felt the heat rising to his face and prayed no one noticed. He bowed again even as demurrals started forming ranks behind his lips. Before he could say anything, Lady Sky continued, "Perhaps the captain would honor me with a demonstration of the skill that has gained such respect from his men." Sparrow looked up at her. Her smile had widened and she tilted her head slightly.
"I will be honored, taisho," he responded. "Please allow me a few moments to get ready. Seven Motion, you will referee. Present the taisho with a bokken for her use. Also, let our warriors take seats around the ring." With that, Sparrow bowed to Lady Sky and walked off to the other side of the ring.
Sparrow began warming-up, but in reality he was trying to calm down his pounding blood. When Running Stag joined his captain moments later, Sparrow was still crouched on the ground with his left leg stretched to the side.
"You know," said Stag, "you usually don't stretch so much before a duel."
"Wouldn't you do whatever you could if you were going to fight Endless Sky?"
"Hnn. Point taken."
Sparrow looked over his shoulder. Lady Sky was taking practice swings with her bokken, testing its weight. She stopped after a few strokes and just stood there, with the air of a noblewoman waiting for tea. He turned away and stretched his other leg.
"Well, let's hope you're as good as she says," Running Stag said. "I haven't seen you practicing at all since the last time you dueled with her..."
"Don't remind me!" Sparrow shuddered inwardly. It had been two years and there hadn't been any witnesses, but it embarrassed him nonetheless. That time he had been completely fooled by Lady Sky's feint and dashed in without forethought, hoping for a quick victory. He knew he lost even before the flat side of her bokken lay gently against his back. She had said, "Beware when the enemy is too obvious with his actions; it is a sign he is plotting." He knew that! He was just—
"Nervous?" Stag asked.
"Sure, alright. Just be careful."
Sparrow got up. "Oh, is that your lousy way of saying 'don't fall for it this time?'"
"Relax. You both studied under the same master and learned the same style. She can't give you too much trouble, right?"
"Wrong. I was One Human's student. She was his protégé. There IS a difference." Besides, he thought as he glanced at her again, they ended up more than just master and student.
Stag regarded her as well. "I wonder why she went out of her way to come here though. She could have waited until we got back to the dojo."
Sparrow shrugged. "Maybe she thinks I can do better in public." Still, he mused, it was strange. The last times they sparred, it was always in the privacy of the empty dojo halls.
Stag said, "Anyway, don't worry too much. She won't make one of her officers look like an amateur in front of so many people. She won't embarrass you. Maybe you'll embarrass you, but she won't. Cheer up."
"Thanks. I feel so much better."
With a few deep breaths, Sparrow finished his exercises and accepted Stag's bokken. Together they walked back to the center of the ring.
Lady Sky was standing a few steps from the center, her bokken cradled in her crossed arms. She seemed the very picture of serenity, with her hidden hands, with the bamboo behind her bowing with the wind. Sparrow felt his breath go shallow as he came closer. Yes, he was nervous—who wouldn't be beneath the weight of self-expectation? Yet he also lived for these times. Every single one of his duels with Endless Sky was for him a moment of intimacy. Only then did their bodies and minds react to one another in a blaze of movement that no dance could ever hope to equal.
He pushed his other thoughts away as he stopped some distance before her.
Running Stag stood between them and to one side. He raised both hands. Lady Sky unfolded her arms and held her bokken to her left, as one would a sheathed sword. Sparrow did likewise. At a word from Stag, both bowed, then drew their bokken with one hand and gave each other the formal salute—weapon pointed skyward, hilt close to the jaw, hands clasped over the grip as if in prayer.
Running Stag announced, "The rules for this duel is First Blood—the one who lands a blow first or forces his opponent to step out of the ring will be the victor."
Sparrow momentarily closed his eyes and released all other concerns from his mind. With deep breaths he concentrated his ki, the life force flowing through his body, and his awareness pushed outwards in a wide circle. He felt the presence of his men, felt their tension drawn tight as bowstrings. Mostly he was aware of her. Her ki was calm, like a pond of water perfectly reflecting an azure sky.
One last command from the referee, and the duel began.
Sparrow lowered his bokken before him and pointed it at an angle, his left foot sliding forward. Chudan, a basic stance, one he could easily adapt to defense and offense. Lady Sky's stance, Hasso, was less defensive but more versatile: facing right, feet apart, weapon held vertical and at shoulder level.
For several moments the two combatants stood frozen, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Sparrow considered changing his stance to a more offensive one, but when he tried to distance himself she shuffled one step towards him. He then decided it was better to wait for an opportunity to attack.
It came. When she blinked beneath the morning sun, he raised his bokken high and charged.
Sparrow knew of two ways Lady Sky could attack from her stance, either with an overhead strike or an upward one. He expected her to do neither. She was more likely to sidestep his supposed overhead slash and come at his flank. He planned to swiftly lower his sword to the side and catch her as she moved to her new position. He wanted her on the defensive early on in hopes of wearing her down, and this was a good start.
Unless of course, she did the most obvious thing and struck upwards from her original stance, which she did. Sparrow had no choice but to follow through with his overhead swing to catch her blow. He quickly followed his initial strike with side cuts at close quarters, but she parried them with minimal effort. At the end of his last downward slash he dropped to his haunches and lashed out at her legs. Lady Sky leaped and while in mid-air struck the back of his passing sword. On landing, she delivered her first counter-attack. Sparrow had barely enough time to bring his weapon in and ward off a thrust for his torso.
He tried to back away to gather himself, but she surged forward with a flurry of blows and he found himself on full defensive. He recognized the move as the Twenty-Nine Tides maneuver. Not one of her favorites, and the use of a bokken hampered its speed, but it kept him well-occupied. Each stroke was timed with her shuffling steps and came at him at breathtaking speed. Sparrow himself was swift with the sword, but he found he could barely keep up with her.
He concentrated on the numbering of the slashes. On the twenty-ninth he called on his ki, launching into a horizontal strike from the left. An unseasoned opponent would have had an easier time stopping a charging bull, but she was ready for him. She lightly parried his bokken and used his own force to carry her into a spin. Her sword came whistling round for his back. Sparrow had no choice. He quickly broke off his counter-attack and back-flipped, praying he acted on time. He glimpsed a brown blur as her bokken swept beneath him. He hit the ground and back-rolled to his feet, ready to take advantage of the opening she left. There was none. Lady Sky was already in a new stance, feet spaced apart, sword held one-handed overhead, other hand steadying it at the blade.
The wind, only a light breeze when they began, picked up again as Sparrow raised his bokken. She was serious, he realized. Nothing at all like the last time, where she seemed more of a teacher or upperclassman. What was going on here?
This time he assumed his favorite stance, sword held at chest level on his left side, blade vertical and pointed at his opponent. He concentrated, steadied his breathing. As his mind cleared once more, the words of his dead master and taisho, One Human Rising Spirit, came back to him, "A duel is always a test of spirit. Break your opponent's composure and victory shall be yours."
His opponent backed away a little. She knew he was in a position to use his famous sandantsuki, a three-point thrust maneuver that was devastating at mid-range. She was not going to give him an opportunity, it seemed.
Sparrow thought hard. One Human Endless Sky was faster than him. Having learned the Heaven-Earth-Human style earlier, she also had more experience and knew a variety of techniques that he was only somewhat familiar with. She was flexible, impossible to anticipate. She outclassed him at every aspect. Logically, his chances with her were next to nothing.
He grimaced inwardly. This was no time to consider how loaded that thought was. He had to win this duel.
As if sensing his disquiet, Lady Sky swept in to attack, her bokken whipping backwards before circling toward him in a rising slash. Sparrow swerved left and ducked low to evade it, then dashed in. She in turn managed to avoid an upward thrust by bending forward. His bokken flew past her head, briefly parting the hair of her ponytail before drawing back. She brought her weapon to bear and warded away his next slash.
For the next several minutes the air was filled with snap and clack of whirling wood as the two combatants plunged into attack and counter-attack. Their feet cut shallow grooves into the ground. Sparrow never released her from his sight. If he was going to succeed here, he knew it was though proper form. Each strike was completely concentrated; he never overreached nor played tricks with his balance that many lowerclassmen were so eager to do. But her martial skills seemed better than ever. Fast as flash fire, still as the winter woods; her attack spared him no quarter, left him no opening.
All his outer thoughts were erased as both their attacks hit at the same time. Their swords locked together, as did their eyes.
Sparrow's concentration suddenly splintered when he realized how close he was to her. His nose caught the scent of soap from her hair, mixed with the underlying musk of her sweat. As they stood there, arm muscles straining against crossed wood, he felt that old heat creeping onto his face once more. Quickly he disengaged and lashed wildly, hoping she did not notice.
She backed away, parrying his blows from one side to the other. He stopped when he noticed how she was twisting her bokken each time he struck, causing his own to bounce further off and making it harder to bring back in control. They separated, him breathing heavily, her calm as ever. They started circling each other, each aware of every step and shift of the eyes, searching anything that would reveal the other's mode of attack while disguising their own. They spun around the ring as if engaged in a strange dance. It was several minutes before they finally stopped. Had Sparrow been watching the duel from afar he would have laughed. Neither had given ground or opportunity: a complete stalemate.
He crouched lower, still holding his bokken vertical at his left side. He was tiring and he knew it. With every minute the duel lasted his strength and speed ebbed, while hers remained near full. It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, before she caught him…
He mentally slapped himself. There was no room for doubting. A duel was always a test of spirit. If his will was strong enough, he would win.
She was changing her stance again. Breaking from her crouch, she stood tall and relaxed, facing him, weapon held one-handed at her side as if to surrender. 'Damn,' he thought. 'Formless stance.'
There was something else. He did not notice it before, that look in her eyes. She was deliberately fighting close to full strength. She had not entered this duel for friendly contest. Why? He tried to see it in her face but, but he might as have been viewing it through a veil, or trying to see behind the blue of the sky.
Again, he steadied himself. 'Where are your priorities, Sparrow? She is going to attack from that stance and you have no idea where she would be coming from. She could be thinking about what side dish to have for breakfast when she finishes hammering your stupid ass into the dust! Now think, damn it.'
He tried to recall Rising Spirit's lessons, but his mind yielded vague shapes, half-baked maneuvers. He realized why: with formless stance, one cannot anticipate the opponent's move.
He decided to attack first and closed in for sandantsuki. It was a mistake. He took one step forward and she exploded into motion. Whirlwind Dance, it was called, and with good reason. Arms stretched out like wings, she spun her body like a tornado as her bokken cut the air in wide circles. He broke off his attack pulled back as the tip of her blade, moving faster than her arms, lashed inches before his face. Her feet and head kept track of him, following his path of retreat. He was on the defensive again. Breaking into her circle attack was dangerous. Missing the beat or the angle of attack would be a disaster.
She followed him with nimble steps, changing the angle of her circling sword each time. He blocked, dodged, stepped back, almost to the edge of the ring. He was at a loss; he barely knew this style. Her bokken crashed against his own as he parried again. He felt the wood almost splinter in his aching hands. She barely even slowed down.
He wanted so badly to win this time. He wanted to show her how much he had improved, how worthy he was to be captain. He wanted her…wanted her to notice. He had to win.
Sparrow leaped away from Lady Sky, bokken on guard but no longer parrying. His eyes flicked from one side of the ring to the other, then at his feet.
And the solution came to him in a furious flash of insight.
They had been moving in full circles, avoiding the edge of the ring. This time Sparrow retreated closer to the edge. To his right, a sakura tree cast its mid-morning shadow on the ground where he stood. Lady Sky followed him there. When he changed stance, she stopped and they watched each other once more.
One chance. One chance is all I get.
Sparrow crouched lower, right foot forward, bokken held at his left for a backhand slash. It was as close to the iai stance as he could get without a scabbard. From her eyes he knew how Lady Sky would interpret his move: it would be a low attack aimed for her legs. She did not change her position as he had hoped. She still held her arms outward, her left side facing him and her sword poised behind her for another swing. If he moved first, she would catch his side. If she moved first, he would slash at her legs.
Wait, just wait for it.
They stood there for long moments, still as noon shadows. No one outside ring moved either. Running Stag forgot to wipe the sweat from his brows; they dripped freely down the edge of eyes like tears. As one they all waited.
Wait for it.
The breeze picked up once more, stronger than ever. It flowed through the glade and rustled the branches of the sakura tree.
Sparrow sprinted forward. Blood pounded madly in his ears and his legs pumped like pistons. Lady Sky's sword swept at him in fatal arc. He swerved left and slowed down. She twisted, her sword came swirling back at an angle. He dashed backwards, slowed down, darted to her right. Each time her sword came again and he swept back again, slowed, speeded up. The effect was startling. Each time he dashed after slowing down he trailed afterimages. It was as near a copy he could get of the Flowing Water technique. To any onlooker it seemed as if a pack of ghosts were attacking Lady Sky.
The technique was good enough to confound an inexperienced warrior, but not her. Besides which, she disliked parlor tricks. She thrust her sword arm farther from her body and swept around for one more attack. Its extended range would catch all the images, and Seeking Sparrow, in a single blow. It was the one moment Sparrow was hoping for.
When Lady Sky brought her bokken around for the slash, it met no resistance. Sparrow and his images had vanished.
She froze in mid-strike. Her eyes broke out of their inward gaze and flicked around her. Sparrow was nowhere to be found. Not at her flanks, not at her back.
Only a split-second passed before she noticed the eyes of those around her. Then she too looked up.
Sparrow was twelve feet in the air and already descending upon her. He had timed his leap for that moment she turned her head to begin her circling attack. The extra extension cost her cut a half-second longer than normal. The wind blowing through the sakura's branches disguised the rustling of air through his clothes. The shadow of the sakura tree hid his own receding shadow from sight. Sky and earth did not give him an overwhelming advantage, but they bought him a half-second. A half-second he gravely needed.
He tucked his feet under him, held his sword double-handed on his left. He felt as if he were diving down at hawk speed. He did not even think of the sandantsuki; it simply came on its own like a drawn breath, commanding the surge of ki in his arms, the sureness in his aim. He glimpsed her eyes—they showed only complete surprise—then the world shrank down the only thing that seemed real, to that point on her right shoulder where his blow would land.
Four feet from her, and a kiai erupted from his lips. His bokken thrust out like a bolt of lightning.
His sandantsuki met only air.
Even as his bokken smashed into the ground, even as his feet struck up a cloud of dust, his unbelieving eyes kept staring at the spot where her shoulder should have been. He did not even see her move.
A sharp pain on the back of his shoulders jolted him back to reality. He started, looked to his right. Lady Sky stood a step away, feet apart, bokken held against his back. She eyed him cautiously, her lips forming a tight, shallow line.
Then a cry rang out, seemingly from nowhere. "The match is over! The winner is Six Moon Seeking Sparrow!"
Sparrow took a moment to realizethe voice was Running Stag's, another moment to find it was Stag shaking him by the shoulder. A chorus of babbling voices swirled around him, confusing him. Sparrow stared up at Stag. He could not understand the wide grin on his friend's face. He understood his words even less.
Then he turned his gaze to Lady Sky. She had lowered her bokken in resignation, looking down at her left foot. It was planted outside the white-chalked border of the dueling ring.
Sparrow felt his strength leaving him, even as the words of One Human instantly returned to mind. He had done it. For one second, he had broken Endless Sky's composure. Forgetting where she was, she had stepped blindly away from his assault. Her one step had cost her the match.
He sat down, still dazed, until a hand lightly lay on his shoulder. He looked up at his taisho. She was smiling at him; that inward look had vanished from her face. Somehow it made his victory all the more real. "You have vastly improved since we last crossed swords. Congratulations, Six Moon."
He got up immediately and bowed, a gesture she returned. Sparrow suddenly became aware of the cheering crowd around them. "Seven Motion," he snapped, "our men are behaving inappropriately before our taisho. Call them to ranks and discipline them!" Stag left his side and started barking commands. The battalion gathered beside the bamboo patch, leaving Lady Sky and Sparrow alone in the ring.
He felt awkward again, standing before her. This time it was more acute, as if he had done something profane. "I…I am sorry to have embarrassed you…"
She raised one slim hand to silence him. "Seeking Sparrow, why do you apologize? You have bested me in honorable combat. What shame can be found in that? Even the finest warrior cannot win each and every time."
He reddened. Had she really called him by his fate name? "Taisho," he said, "had you been fighting at full strength, you would surely have been the victor. I had to give my utmost—"
"And I had wanted you to. I would have been insulted if you had held back. I am honored to know that my retainers are as skilled as they are loyal. No, I am more than honored. I am happy." When she bowed on her own accord, he felt his insides melting like candles. Joy blazed in his very core; he felt like he could smile for days.
"It was a pleasure, taisho," he said, beaming.
"Yes, it was," she said. "Thank you, Six Moon. Were he alive, your performance today would have been the perfect birthday gift for my husband."
Sparrow's smile froze.
"…Birthday?" he asked. "Today is One Human's … birthday?"
She eyed him quizzically. "You mean he never told you? I'm sorry, young Six Moon. I never realized." She paused and looked up at the sakura tree. "He would have been thirty-nine summers today."
He felt as if a small hole had opened in his stomach as he gazed at that beautiful upturned face. Even after three years, was Rising Spirit as real to her now as he had ever been? That look in her eyes while she was fighting—was her husband the one occupying her thoughts? And did she duel with me today because today was Rising Spirit's birthday? Why?
He desperately wanted to ask her this, and knew he could not. Instead he pulled those words into a strangle hold in his chest.
The answer came anyway.
She turned those fathomless dark eyes at him and said, "I must go now. Again, my thanks. I enjoyed myself today." A wisp of a smile touched her lips once more as she added, as she if sharing a secret: "You fight much like One Human did. He never failed to surprise me at the last moment."
Sparrow felt the hole in his gut gape wider, but kept that painted smile on his face. He remained where he was even after she turned away. After retrieving Falling Flower, she looked back. "I will be visiting his grave later this afternoon to pay my respects. Would you like to join me?"
His voice was level, and that polite smile had returned. "Of course, taisho. Thank you."
She turned away once more and he watched her figure receding into the gardens. Moments later, Running Stag joined him. "Well," he said, "I suppose congratulations would be in order. Wait till Mourning Mountain hears about this! Don't get cocky though. I can tell you about a dozen mistakes you made, and at least one that could have been fatal were it the real thing."
Sparrow did not look at him. "Yeah," he said softly. "Remind me to work on 'knowing my enemy.'" He ignored his friend's bemused look and said, "You better get the battalion indoors. We still have some work to do."
Stag left his side and guided the battalion back to the fortress. Sparrow followed more slowly, dusting his clothes all the while. The breeze came again, down from the distant mountains, reminding him of summer's arrival. Sparrow couldn't have cared less. If he had the choice, he would've made it rain.