Part 1

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This is the story of how Hiko and Hikaru first met. Those who find Hiko's arrogance an annoyance might get a few smiles at a 15-year-old Hiko getting humbled a bit by his Master and by a pretty geisha. Of course, in this story he isn't Seijuro Hiko yet, but simply Kakunoshin Niitsu, baka deshi - stupid apprentice.

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The small knot of men just inside the door of the private room greeted Seijuro Hiko with correct bows he was respected but not particularly liked and looked past him at the young man who followed him in. "Master Hiko, is that your apprentice?" one asked. "He's grown since we last saw him."

"That's because he eats enough for four people. I have to find work just to feed him."

This mild joke was greeted with smiles. Another man asked, "Is it true he fought Zeshin Noguchi and killed him, all by himself?"

"He did, Iwasaki-san. Noguchi was nothing, but the boy needed the exercise, so I allowed it."

"You're hard on him. I'm impressed." He turned to the apprentice, Kakunoshin Niitsu. "But why Noguchi? I know he deserved to die, but I heard you actually sought him out."

Niitsu replied at once, "That province is extremely unstable at this time, honored sir. The local officials have little control. Allowing Noguchi and his bandits to plunder there would have been like kicking the coals of a fire onto tatami."

Iwasaki nodded, agreeing. However, Master Hiko gave his apprentice a look that would have felled an ox. "I don't recall giving you permission to speak."

Niitsu at once bowed and apologized. Although in the seven years he'd been apprentice to Master Hiko, he had grown to be half a head taller and perhaps 50 pounds heavier than his master, size and weight were of little matter in their relationship. He still had much to learn about the Hiten Mitsurugi, and, on a more practical level, Master Hiko could beat him black and blue without breaking a sweat. He was proud of his accomplishments, but he never grew proud enough to show anything but the deepest respect to his Master.

"Go outside," Hiko ordered. "It's a nice night. Look at the moon."

Niitsu did as he was told, but he didn't go far. He was still close enough to hear when Iwasaki chided Hiko, "You're too hard on that boy. He's a good apprentice." He was also close enough to hear Master Hiko respond, "He's the most promising apprentice I've ever had. But his head gets too big and he stops learning. It's bad for his discipline to show him so much regard, Iwasaki-san."

Grinning, Niitsu let himself out the side door and onto the street before Hiko caught him eavesdropping. He had been meant to hear that Master Hiko never did anything by accident but after seven years, he also knew when to get out of reach. Feeling far too cocky to stand still, he turned right to follow the wall around to the back of the teahouse, knowing there was a small park where he could stretch his legs. At fifteen years old, and very fit, he was as full of energy as he was of confidence. He wasn't surprised that Hiko named him his most promising apprentice, only that the Master would actually say it aloud. He was absolutely certain that, unlike Master Hiko's previous apprentices, he would eventually learn the Ku-zu-ryu-sen and the mysterious "final attack" and become a Master himself. No number of setbacks and insults could shake his conviction. He'd never yet failed at anything he'd tried, and the Hiten Mitsurugi succession technique would be no different.

The teahouse wall on his right dropped off from a stockade to a stone wall no higher than his chest, and over it he could see the gardens. One area, almost at the very end, was lit with paper lanterns, and he wondered who could be out there. The gardens were rarely used in the night. He was only mildly curious and wouldn't have gone out of his way to find out, but since he was passing it anyway, he took a look.

Hikaru would later call that look "fate," or "destiny," but he never would. Geishas were superstitious, and he wasn't. It was simple coincidence and curiosity, and nothing more. However, he did look, and while he would have denied the idea that it changed his life, it did change one aspect of it drastically.

A woman was there, a geisha, alone beside a tiny tea table, humming softly to herself, and she was so beautiful that, without realizing it, he stopped to stare at her. Even under the traditional white make-up that could conceal as much as it decorated, her features were lovely, and her wide mouth needed no exaggeration for the lower lip to pout invitingly. She was very tall for a woman, slender and supple, her kimono fitting perfectly, smoothly to her shape, rich in shades of purple with a dragon winding along the length, its outline highlighted with silver thread. The ornaments in her elaborately dressed hair sparkled in the light of the lamps. She was standing, poised, with a wisteria blossom cupped in one hand, the fingers of the other hand tracing the edge of the flower. Even just humming, her voice was low and sweetly musical.

He couldn't stop staring at her, and at the same time was angry with himself for being so captivated. This was a teahouse girl, nothing more, and he was a future Master of the Hiten Mitsurugi style. She should be of no interest to him. She'll probably pluck that blossom and tuck it in her obi or her hair, he thought, unconsciously wishing she'd do something like that, something so obviously female and silly that she wouldn't seem magical to him and he could walk away.

She leaned her face to the blossom, let it touch her cheek, then opened her hand and released it as she might have released a small wild bird. Smiling in some private happiness, she turned and saw him, leaning there on the wall. After a blink of surprise, she smiled again, mostly with her eyes, which were large and dark and as soft as the wisteria petals. "Hello." She bowed, then tilted her head, studying him. "Don't I know you?"

"No." He straightened, ready to back away. He felt odd inside, as if he were hollow, and it was an unpleasant sensation.

She gestured toward the tea table. "Would you like some tea? Or sake, perhaps?"

Had she left it at tea, he might have been able to leave. But he dearly loved sake, a taste he'd developed as a child. Since becoming an apprentice, he'd had it exactly twice, both times when he'd done some attack move so exceptionally well that he'd broken through his Master's guard. The idea of drinking teahouse sake, which was always the best, held him there as if nailed. But he knew it was useless even dreaming about it. He had no money at all, never mind what it would cost to drink sake at a teahouse with what must be one of their best geisha.

He'd always been one to attack sooner than defend, and she'd set him so off-stride that he spoke with deliberate rudeness to counteract her effect on him, folding his arms on his chest and telling her straight out that he had no money.

"I didn't ask you for money," she said in that sweet, calm voice.

This made him even more surly. "Besides, it would have to be excellent sake for me to waste my time with a woman like you. You're not even all that pretty."

"You don't think I'm pretty?"

"Not at all." It was one of the biggest lies he'd ever told in a lifetime which, although short, had known many lies.

"Then you don't want me to flirt with you or entertain you?"

"It would be a waste of your time and mine."

He was so sure she would be angry that her delighted laughter took him entirely by surprise. "Well, how wonderful. I am trying to relax a little, you see. Will you come and drink sake with me, and we will just talk? Or be silent, if you wish. It is very good sake," she added roguishly.

He knew he should get away. Fast. He had no business here, and if Master Hiko found out, it was going to be painful. On the other hand, there was good sake, a pleasant garden, and a teahouse woman who was willing to share them for nothing. He placed one hand on the wall and vaulted over.

She disappeared for a few moments, returning with the sake and two translucent porcelain cups to drink it from. Kneeling across from him, meeting his still-hostile stare with softly smiling eyes, she poured for them both with the exquisite grace that he'd seen the girls use inside the teahouse, and that irritated him. Maybe she did it out of habit. He didn't know. All he knew was that everything about her made him feel too big, clumsy as an ox, badly dressed, unwashed, and provincially gauche. He would have given anything at that moment to be more like Iwasaki-san, who was slender, sophisticated and elegant, and he hated himself for that wish, so therefore he was angry at her. Knowing this to be unfair only made him more angry. Yet, although he was glaring at her as if she were an enemy, she went on with her little ritual as if she didn't notice, handing him his cup in both of her delicate hands, her lips curved in a slight, inviting smile. "I'm Hikaru," she said. "What should I call you?"

"I don't give my name to teahouse women." He drank some of the sake. She was right. It was excellent sake, far better than any he'd ever tasted before.

She put the knuckles of one hand against her lips, studying him. "Now that I think on it, I believe I know your name. You came here with Master Hiko, didn't you?" He nodded curtly, and she said, "Then I do know your name. It's baka deshi." He was so astonished at her impertinence that his mask dropped, and she laughed delightedly. "However, I won't call you that, but Deshi-san."

He could have snapped her long slender neck with one hand. He could have gotten her in trouble simply by telling someone in the teahouse that she was entertaining him without being paid. Yet she sat there and laughed at him. Furthermore, the way she did it, he couldn't help but want to laugh with her. Instead he growled, "It's Niitsu. Kakunoshin Niitsu."

"We make progress. What have I done to you to make you scowl at me so?"

That was impossible to explain. He said, "I don't trust you."

"Do you mean all this?" with a wave at the tea table and the sake. "Don't you believe that women get bored with all the parties and simply want to sit and be themselves for a while?"

"I hadn't thought about it." Why in the world would he?

"You offered me that opportunity, so this is just a small repayment. I heard inside that you and Master Hiko came from Yokodo. Is the situation there as bad as they say?"

"I don't know. What do they say?"

She took a sip of sake and considered for a moment. "Of course, in Edo, word comes slowly from so far away, even to the teahouses. But it's said that the governor is weak, and has let slip the management of the area into greedy hands. The people are oppressed, and have no one to aid them. That's the nature of human government," she added with a shrug of one shoulder, "but rumor also says that the only reason Governor Hashimoto has not been deposed and possibly assassinated is that his lieutenants don't want to lose their own power, and so protect him. Is this what you saw when you were there?"

"Why do you wonder about such things?"

"I have never been out of Edo. I'm curious about the rest of the world, and everything about it interests me."

"You should keep your mind on beauty, and forget about Yokodo and places like that." Her eyes went round, and he said bluntly, "My Master doesn't trust the Shogun. He believes he waits only for a chance to assassinate Hashimoto, blame it on the local citizens, and initiate a bloodbath that will give his bored soldiers something to do and enrich him into the bargain. So you see what I mean?"

He hadn't shocked her. "How would it enrich him?"

"Slain peasants mean empty farms, which then revert to the Shogun. And in the confusion of battle, many valuable things get lost or confiscated, and these, too, go to the Shogun. My Master believes the Noguchigumi were brought in by the Shogun and paid to begin trouble, which is why we killed them."

"Killed them? Those bandits? You killed them all?"

"My Master and I did."

"Then who do you work for? Obviously not the Shogun. No, don't scowl at me again like that! Have pity on an ignorant woman."

"The sword of the Hiten Mitsurugi style is raised in defense of the helpless, but it is used without loyalty to other men or ideals, only to the principles of Hiten Mitsurugi."

She refilled his cup. "That sounds noble, but does it work in practice as well as in theory?"

Really, she had an extraordinary mind for a woman. "Have your rumor-mongers told you of any riots or battles in Yokodo?"

The smile came into her eyes again. "No, they have not. So you stopped the riots singlehanded, yourself and Master Hiko?"

"Simply delayed them. They will come, eventually."

"That's very sad. It's the innocent who will die and the evil men who will prosper. I begin to think Edo is less of a bad place than I believed, in comparison. Don't you find it contradictory, however, to kill in order to save lives?"

"There is nothing else a swordsman can do. Murder is the only craft you can practice with a sword. But if we are going to murder, we can at least let it be with respect, and for justice."

"If you can discover what justice truly is," she said, and he realized, with a sense of shock, that she really did mean to talk with him. She questioned him further, about the Hiten Mitsurugi principles, about the Noguchigumi, and about his travels. Then she turned the conversation to less serious matters, and they discussed the qualities of good sake, the nature of childhood, whether education was necessary for women, what was superstition and what was truly from the gods, and a dozen other things. Every time he thought that surely they had exhausted all topics, something one or the other of them said led them off on another tangent. He'd never had anyone listen to him with such attentiveness and such intelligence, and he'd never had a woman point out illogical thinking on his part or argue a point with him. His sensitive pride would have suspected that she was humoring him, but her enthusiasm was too spontaneous, surely, to be false. Nor did she practice any of the alluring arts he'd seen used by the other teahouse women. She sometimes frowned, she watched his face carefully when he spoke instead of demurely lowering her eyes, and she only smiled when honestly amused. Nor did she laugh at him again. By the time she pointed out that they had been sitting there for several hours and that she had to go back to work, he'd gone from feeling like a boor to feeling that he was actually an interesting man.

He went looking for his master in something of a daze, so that on the way back to their boarding house he answered Hiko entirely at random and earned himself a cuff on the head.

Continue to part 2

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