Choice

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Now a young Hiten Mitsurugi Master, Hiko still has something important to learn ~ and is going to encounter an unexpected person to teach it to him.

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Seijuro Hiko took long swift strides across the bridge over the castle moat, not stopping until he reached the opposite side. There, feet braced, he faced the forest and twitched his cape until it settled properly around him. His breath rose like clouds in the cold air, and the wind swirled the edges of the cape around his legs, but he welcomed the bite of the approaching winter. It cleansed him from the cloying atmosphere of the castle and the people in it.

A man's form separated itself from the trees and stood waiting for him, grinning widely. Kazuo was tall and stocky, nearly the size of Hiko himself, and wore a red banner around his shaven head, but somehow he could always fade into his surroundings and become almost invisible. The only reason Hiko wasn't startled by his sudden appearance was that he'd been expecting him to be nearby. As Hiko joined him, Kazuo said, "Did you have fun?"

"No."

"Why did the daimyo want to see you? Is he going to pay you?"

"That subject didn't come up."

"I hope he does. I can use my share." Kazuo was nearly twice Hiko's age, and his weatherbeaten face made him look even older, so the impish twinkle in his eyes was pleasantly at odds with his features. "Then what did he want?"

"He wanted to discourse, at length, on the proper and best way for me to go about my task."

Kazuo gave a shout of laughter. "Did you tell him to go to hell?"

"Not in so many words."

"The boy learns tact. Did you bow to him and show him the proper respect?"

"No. You know what I think of all that."

"I think I'm going to get a share of exactly nothing, is what I think." He scratched his chin. "I could have sworn I warned you what he was like."

"You did. And you didn't exaggerate. The man wears more scent than my woman does. And he seemed affronted by the very fact that I'm taller than he is. He kept trying to get me to sit down and drink tea. Tea," he added disgustedly.

"He's not going to waste his sake on a ronin. But you didn't sit?"

"I'm not a dog."

"So you stood there, and looked down that long nose of yours, and made him feel small. And you still got out alive."

"He only had nine men there, so I was never in any danger. What are you laughing about now?"

"Nothing. But from anyone else, I'd call that bragging."

"I don't need to brag. Acknowledging one's accomplishments is only common sense, but boasting about them is the sign of a man who fears he's fallen short somehow."

"Is that you or your Master talking, there?"

Hiko's mouth curved. "My Master."

"So did the daimyo have any good advice at all?"

"Only if my purpose is to fail and look ridiculous doing it."

Kazuo broke into his ready laughter. "Then I assume you'll continue to depend on your friends here in the province."

"Very much. As usual. And you know you won't suffer for it."

"Ha. You never have any money."

"Kazuo, do I look as if I've lost my wits since the last time you saw me? You and your people know where these bandits are hiding. How else can you promise to tell me where I can find them? Once I've killed them, you'll be free to move in and loot their lair."

"Any identifiable treasures that we find, we will naturally return to the rightful owners," Kazuo said piously.

Hiko gave an inelegant snort. Kazuo looked wounded. Hiko just shook his head. Kazuo and his kind were like jackals, swooping in to feast when the lion has left its kill. But they were useful men, and honest within their own ethical boundaries. Unlike the bandits he was stalking, they harmed no one and took no life, and while any actual treasures they found would quietly disappear, food and animals and other such homely items would make their way back into the community from which they'd been stolen. "Another thing the daimyo wanted," he said casually, "is the chest that was stolen from him a few days ago. He's asked me to deliver it to him, and hinted at a reward."

"What's in it?"

"Kimonos, some other works of art."

"If I see it..."

Which meant, Hiko knew, that he would take care not to see it, but to let one of his friends find it.

"... then naturally I'll give it to you to return to the daimyo."

"If I'm still in the province."

"Always assuming that," Kazuo agreed solemnly. But his eyes were twinkling again. He knew that Hiko, once he'd done what he'd come for, would walk away at once. The chances of him being in the province when the chest was discovered were as slim as finding sake instead of water in a well.

Hiko was aware of Kazuo's thoughts, but he didn't care. The daimyo had lost five men when the chest had been taken, but his concern was for his treasures, not his soldiers, and Hiko had no patience with an attitude like that. His only regret was that he wouldn't be able to see one of the stolen kimonos on Kazuo's girlfriend.

Kazuo had a house not far from there, high on the slopes, an isolated little cottage which was snug and dry on the inside but, on the outside, looked as if it were dilapidated to the point of falling down. A perfect house for a spy and thief, Hiko always thought, and the girlfriend, who was about half Kazuo's age and size, kept the inside ruthlessly clean and harmonious, as if trying to compensate for the outer shell. She served them food and sake on the rickety porch and then effaced herself, and the two men sat there in a companionable silence, waiting for word from one of Kazuo's friends.

Word came before they'd finished the first jug of sake. Hiko, with his younger eyes, saw it first, an arrow arcing briefly over the trees, a mile or more away. Kazuo stiffened beside him and asked him, "Did you see where it landed?"

"Of course."

"Go, then. Keep an eye open – they'll signal changes of direction for you if they safely can. I'll catch up with you. You need speed, and I can't keep up with those long legs of yours."

Hiko headed north, running as fast as he could in the forest, faster than was really safe. But he and Kazuo had agreed that, if they were going to catch the bandits, the chosen victims couldn't be warned. They had to be unwitting bait, sacrifices to stop the bandits' rampaging and save future innocents. Kazuo's people couldn't even step in to help when the bandits actually attacked, since they were not fighters, but only thieves and spies, and most of them mere children. Whoever they were, these victims would be the bandits' last, but Hiko was not going to allow a single innocent life to be taken because he'd been a step too slow. With his cloak wrapped over one arm serving as a shield for his face, he charged for where he'd seen the arrow fall. Once, another arrow flew, this time pointing him more westward, higher into the hills, and he turned and followed it with no lessening of his speed.

As he scrambled down a slope, he abruptly saw the situation below him, practically at his feet. The bandits had cornered a small merchant caravan where a turn in the road wedged them with their backs against a cliff side, trapped. The merchants had formed the wagons into a tight, protective half-circle, a move Hiko found surprisingly intelligent until he saw the face of one of Kazuo's people, a young woman, among the merchants and servants huddled together. So the spies had decided to help if they could. That was better than the daimyo had done. He had promised his soldiers to escort all such trade caravans, but apparently he'd gone back on his word.

From what Hiko could see in the scant seconds it took him to get to the edge of the cliff, the merchant party had suffered some wounded, but it looked as if only one man had died, so far back along the road from the fray that the arrows which had pierced him were probably the first warning the caravan had gotten. Now, the bandits were standing back, twelve of them, sheltered by the large rocks which lined this treacherous curve in the mountain road, and were casually using bows to pick off whatever body part showed itself between the wagons. The situation made Hiko smile. The bandits had trapped the caravan, but they had also trapped themselves. None would be able to get past him once he got behind them.

The large rocks that the bandits were using for cover protected wagons from accidentally falling down the steep slope beyond. The ledge the bandits stood on behind them was narrow. They wouldn't escape him, but there was no margin for error on his part. If he landed wrong, he'd go over the edge and probably break most of the bones in his body. But it never occurred to him that he might fail. He simply picked his spot and leaped high into the air.

He came down behind them, turning as his feet touched the ground, and three of the bandits were dead before they even knew he was there. The others turned, yelling, to face him. Two, their bows loaded, shot arrows at him, one of which he fended off with his sword, the other of which he caught and, grinning, snapped in two between his fingers. He felt good, his blood singing, his spirit high. This was what he'd been created and trained to do, and he did it better than anyone. He already knew everything he needed to know about his opponents by their reactions. The only unknown was the man who was apparently the leader, standing back to allow the others to approach Hiko. The others, however, Hiko could read at a glance. Slow men, accustomed to others freezing with fear from their mere viciousness. Now he would show them what a fight truly was.

The two with bows immediately notched more arrows, while the other six backed into the road, drawing their own swords. None were long enough to get close to him, except that of the leader, and that man was still standing back, in the shadows, giving curt orders but not stepping forward himself. Hiko hoped for a duel with him when the slaughter was done. But first, he had work.

Less than he thought, however. As one of the bowmen stepped out of cover to take aim at him, an arrow from the caravan struck him neatly in the throat. Hiko glanced over and grinned at the archer, Kazuo's young woman. The other bandit let fly with his arrow, but he was so disconcerted with what had happened to his companion that he didn't leave cover, and the arrow flew wide. The girl shouted, "I'll watch him, Master Hiko!" and Hiko, his back covered, turned his attention to the six swordsmen.

"Fan out and surround him, you idiots!" the leader growled.

They obeyed, but they were still frozen, unable to get close enough to strike him without getting within his reach. Two behind him signaled those in front to distract him so they could move in. Hiko didn't see them – no matter what anyone thought, Hiten Mitsurugi masters didn't have eyes in the backs of their heads – but he felt their movement, felt the shift of their energy, and saw the response in the eyes of those in front of him. He took a step forward, putting himself out of his prepared stance, as if going to meet them. The two behind him charged, and he spun, decapitating one and slicing through the shoulder of the other, down through the collarbone. Before his strike could be slowed by more bone, he whipped the sword up and brought it behind him, stopping the blade aimed at his back, turning with the same movement. Extending his arm, he drove the other man's sword up, and then, with the man totally exposed, brought his own sword in an arc which cut his opponent in half at the waist.

From the corner of his eye he caught the movement of the second archer, and took a half-step backward. The arrow whizzed past his face, and at the same time, Kazuo's girl fired again, her arrow passing behind him. The bandit fell, and Kazuo's girl let out a silly crow of triumph. Hiko took his stance again. Only three left, not counting the leader, and the only sweat on him was from his run. He grinned.

Then the leader said something odd. "Fuck! Not again!"

But Hiko didn't have time to worry about that. The next words out of the leader's mouth were, "Get him, you idiots, before he kills you all!" There was something familiar about the deep, raw voice, but that was something else Hiko ignored, because the words galvanized the three others to come after him together. He killed one and parried the other two with his first movement, using so much force that the third man was pulled toward him. He downed that man with a fist, then thrust into his back as he fell, skewering the heart. The last bandit backed away, panicked now, glancing behind him and realizing that, unless he could scale a sheer rock protected by a bunch of people who were ready to tear him apart, he was going to have to face Hiko. He dropped his sword and held up his hands in surrender. "Fine," Hiko said, and thrust.

His blade met another as it entered the man's breast. The leader, striking from behind, was paying his man back for cowardice. Their swords hummed as they both pulled out of the dead man, and Hiko, grinning, took his first good look at his only worthy opponent.

The tip of his sword wavered and dropped. No wonder the voice had sounded familiar. He knew the man. The hair was heavily greyed, the face more creased with age, but the flat dark eyes were the same. Hiko would have known him anywhere. But he was looking at a man he'd thought dead. "Juro?"

There was no recognition from the other man. Which wasn't too surprising, since he hadn't seen Hiko since Hiko was eight years old. Hiko had recently turned twenty, and had changed a lot in that time. "That's my name," Juro grunted, "but if this is some kind of formal challenge..." He spit on the ground, inches from Hiko's boot. "I don't give a shit what your name is."

"Juro. You can't beat me. Surrender. I'll let you live."

"Fuck you. You never know, I might get lucky. But tell me, is there an army of you guys out there, or did you steal that cape from the old man?"

"There's only one of these."

"Did you kill the old guy for it?"

"Yes."

"You're not as good as he was."

"I will be. I was his apprentice."

"Why do you keep staring at me like that?" Juro demanded.

Hiko couldn't begin to explain. The last time he'd seen Juro, the man had been bleeding heavily, on the ground, apparently dead. But before that day, Juro had seemed like a god to him, tall, strong and ruthless, a man he'd looked up to both physically and emotionally. Now Juro was just an old ronin, a head shorter than him, far too stiff and slow to beat him, despite his defiant words. "Why don't you ask my name?" he said.

"Because I don't care what it is."

"It's Seijuro Hiko the 13th. But before I took that name, I was Kakunoshin Niitsu."

The flat eyes narrowed sharply, then widened. "Shit. I don't believe it. Little Kakunoshin?"

"Yes."

Juro's face split in a wide grin, although unlike Hiko's, his sword didn't waver at all. "I'll be damned. You grew, boy!"

Hiko's lips twitched. "A little."

"So the old man took you on as an apprentice, huh? I figured he killed you. But instead you killed him. Pretty good. I would say you learned your lessons from me well, but I have a feeling that's not the whole story. If it were, you wouldn't be here cutting my men apart. Unless, of course, you want that loot for yourself."

"No, I don't. I have no use for it."

"Don't tell me you're going around protecting the innocent. I thought I taught you better than that, but then, I had a feeling you only listened to me with half an ear. You were the stubbornest kid I ever met. So – what are you going to do now? Kill another of your masters?"

"I don't want to." He wasn't sure he could. Juro was as evil as anyone he'd ever faced, but Juro had also saved his life, not once but several times. He wouldn't be standing here now, if not for this man. Knowing that he wouldn't have been an orphan who needed saving if not for this man didn't help. Juro had shown him justice. A rough and cruel justice, but justice all the same. In a way, he'd treated Hiko like a son, giving him what he thought a boy would need to survive in the world.

His answer made Juro sneer. "You always were soft inside. You'll have to, or I'll kill you."

Hiko let the tip of his sword drop to the ground. "Will you? I doubt it. But tell me, how did you survive my master's attack? We were both sure you were dead." True, they'd never seen his body. When they'd arrived at the farm, the villagers, drawn by the smoke, had already begun burying the bodies. But having seen the fight, until today he'd never doubted Juro was in that mass grave.

Juro said, "I'm tough, and I'm smart. I knew he was more than my match, so the third time he came after me, I focused, not on beating him, but in parrying him well enough to stay alive. Even then, it was almost not enough. If the old man hadn't been so preoccupied with helping the girl, he might have noticed something. And if Takuji and Yakumo hadn't come back and helped me, I would have bled to death anyway. As you've probably noticed, the wounds still slow me down a bit. But I lived."

Hiko hadn't thought about Takuji and Yakumo once in more than ten years. "Where are they now, those two?"

"Yakumo died of pneumonia two years after you left. Takuji is right over there," with a gesture toward the corpses scattered behind Hiko. "I always told him you'd kill him, but I thought after you disappeared that I was wrong. Guess not."

"And Akahana?"

Juro laughed. "That woman was unforgettable, wasn't she? She's dead, too. Childbirth. Ironic, huh? No, not mine. She'd already moved on to someone better by that time. Richer, anyway. She was never satisfied," he grumbled. "But she'd have been better off keeping you, wouldn't she? Saved us all a lot of grief." His sword had not wavered a fraction of an inch, and now his eyes narrowed again. "Enough reminiscing. I never did have much use for sentiment. I will say, though, I never expected you to grow up like this. I never expected you to grow up at all. I thought the old man killed you, like I said." He chuckled. "I always knew you wouldn't starve to death, though, not with the skills I taught you. But you've gone me one better. You look like you haven't missed a meal since the day you left me. Who would have thought skinny little Kakunoshin would turn out like you have?" He took a defensive stance. "Very well. You have another name now, and you've probably grown beyond any gratitude you might have felt toward me. So we'll have a fight."

But Hiko didn't lift his own sword. Listening to Juro's voice, he had fallen back in time, recalling days that had been shut out of his mind since the first few months of his apprenticeship. He remembered being hungry enough to eat a wooden table leg, and this man casually flicking him a rice ball, keeping him alive another day until he learned to steal his food. He remembered being dragged out from a hiding place by an angry Shun, and Shun's knife-wielding hand being caught in an iron grip by this man before him, saving his life yet again. He remembered weapons and training given to him for no other reason than to teach him to survive in the world as Juro saw it. He now knew that world to be cruelly narrow, but within its limits, Juro had done well by him. "I told you, I don't want to fight with you."

"You figure you owe me, is that it?"

Hiko nodded.

"You do, of course. Let me go, then."

"I can't do that."

"How about if I promise to retire and live a life of peace after this? Hell, I'm old enough, it's about time."

"I wouldn't believe you."

The eyes narrowed again, this time in amusement. "You were never stupid, I'll give you that. Come on, we can't stand here until I drop dead of old age."

Hiko again made him the offer he had never before made any man. "Surrender, and I'll turn you over to the authorities. I'll ask them to spare you."

"Don't be an ass. They'd agree with you to your face, and the minute your back was turned, I'd be on the executioner's block. If we even got that far. More than likely, the first village we pass through, there are a bunch of people who would gladly stone me to death or tear me apart."

"You're the moth who can no longer fly now, aren't you? And the ants are waiting for you."

"That's right. But they'll just have to go hungry. I have no intention of falling into their clutches, that swarm of cowards. No authorities, Kakunoshin. That's too easy. Fight me, or let me go."

"You mean kill you or let you go."

"You always were so damned cocky."

"It's still the truth. However much you might want to deny it, Juro, you don't have a chance against me. You're more than fifty years old now. My Master left you with your abilities cut in two, I can tell by the way you moved. And I'm a Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. I don't have to kill you, you know. I can take you alive."

"But you won't."

"Why won't I?"

Juro's lips curved. "Maybe you would. Maybe you forgot all about your family. You were very young. Do you want me to remind you? Your father offered me water, thinking I was just a traveler passing by. Nice man. Kept a good farm, too. No loot, but you kept us fed for a while."

Hiko had a reason for keeping that particular memory hidden away. Gratitude was a simple emotion, easy to control. But the emotion that flooded him now, as Juro's words brought back the slaughter of his family, was another story. A door opened in his mind, and all the hatred that he hadn't dare feel when he was five years old suddenly emerged. He felt his face heat with the effort to contain it.

Juro saw, and smiled. "Your sister sure was a pretty little thing," he said. "Soft and tender. So was your mother – for a woman her age."

He knew what Juro was doing, but the knowledge didn't help. It was working. He could almost hear Chieko's screams of pain again and feel his five-year-old's helpless rage, and his arm was shaking with his effort not to bring his sword up. He no longer knew what he wanted to do. Killing Juro now, with his own hands, or turning him over to the authorities to be killed by villagers or by an axe were equally enticing. And equally wrong. What's wrong with me? Why do I hesitate? This is an evil man. I've killed a hundred like him. Yes, he saved my life, but he more than made up for that by what he did to my family. Yet he knew if he struck Juro down as he felt now, he would be stained by something as ugly as anything Juro ever dealt. He couldn't move. Why?

The two of them were still facing each other, taut, Juro in full ready stance, Hiko just out of his reach, sword lowered. Juro was watching the effects of his words on the other man, knowing what he'd done and welcoming it, expecting it to take the edge from his opponent and allow him to escape. Hiko was blank-eyed, torn by memories, and Juro prepared to move while he was still off guard.

A breeze stirred the ground, blowing a few stray leaves past them. Hiko heard his Master then, but not with his ears. Baka. You're a Hiten Mitsurugi Master now. You left behind your past when you came to me, and you promised to act according to the Hiten Mitsurugi principles. Nothing more, and nothing less.

And as a Master, he had only one choice here. It was not personal, not revenge. It was duty.

Juro lunged, seeing just a split second too late that Hiko's eyes had lifted and cleared. Hiko brought his sword up to parry, seeing no fear in the other man's eyes, and no mercy, either. Good. His parry swept up, and he bent one knee, bringing the sword down, back, and forward in a swift thrust. The blade slid between ribs, through lung and muscle, and split the spine before emerging between Juro's shoulders. He yanked it out as Juro fell.

The older man's expression was one of surprised resignation. He put a hand to his chest, held it up, looked at the blood on it, and grimaced. His eyes, already clouding, blinked up at Hiko. "Shit. It was worth a try, though."

His words bubbled with bloody froth. Hiko said, "I'll bury you, Juro."

"Make sure I'm dead first," Juro said with a red grin.

"My Master made few mistakes, but I learned from them, too," Hiko said, and struck twice, once through Juro's heart and once through his throat.

He backed away, closing his eyes. One more kill. That's all, just one more kill. But something was breaking inside him. All around him, the people from the caravan had come out and were watching him, silent, not understanding and afraid to approach him, but he ignored them, trying to keep whatever it was that was falling away. Holding it in his mind, he recognized it as the shards of his past. He could put them together now. They no longer frightened him. Their power, which he had not even recognized, was broken. He could look at the memories and once more make them a part of himself.

Instead, he let them fall. He was a Hiten Mitsurugi Master. The past had no hold over him. Not any more.

He opened his eyes and looked down, and saw just another corpse, another evil man who would never harm anyone again. He smiled and turned to the others. "Well done," he said to Kazuo's girl, and she grinned widely. "Go tell Kazuo. He's probably almost here by now."

"I am here," Kazuo said, coming up behind the girl and patting her on the head. He looked around. "What a mess."

Hiko looked at the merchants and their servants. Worse than useless. But they were still people, not prey. "One of you leave me a shovel. Then you can all go."

They faded, bowing deeply to him, thanking him but at the same time fearing him. Kazuo gave him a quizzical glance. "A shovel? You're going to bury them?"

"Just him."

"A worthy enemy, then?"

"No. But a teacher."

"You're kidding. What could a man like that have taught you?"

"Many things. How to survive – and how I didn't want to live."

Kazuo's brows jumped. "You are not sneaking off today without telling me that story, Seijuro Hiko."

Hiko had never thought he could tell the story to anyone. Even Hikaru knew almost nothing of it. But now... He shrugged. "You want the story, you help me dig the hole."

"You drive a hard bargain, you bastard."

"Of course I do. I'm a Hiten Mitsurugi Master."


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