~ : ~ : ~
The move felt right. No, it felt perfect. Niitsu was sure he'd never done it better. He regained his balance easily and lifted his sword in the same smooth movement to counter his Master's response, ready to translate this energy into his next attack.
But his lifted sword was resisting nothing. His Master had stepped back and lowered his own sword. At his left shoulder, the cloth of his shirt was torn and darkening with spreading blood. "Master!"
Master Hiko glanced down at the wound, then back at his apprentice. "Not bad."
"Not bad? It was great! But you're bleeding!"
"It's a scratch. Don't get conceited."
"We should bandage it."
He should have known better. The reward for his sympathy was a blistering series of attacks from his Master which drove him all the way to the other side of the inn's small courtyard, until, panting, his back was against the wall. He didn't need his Master's grin to tell him he was an idiot, because half his range of movement was now gone. He dropped his sword point as if he were going to aim for his Master's knee, but instead of thrusting he kept dropping, hit the ground, rolled, and came up again in a better position – only to fall when the flat of his Master's sword hit him on the back before he'd quite recovered his stance.
"Not a bad idea," Master Hiko said, stepping back again, "but you're too big and too slow for a trick like that."
"I was desperate," he admitted.
"You weren't watching where you were going," his Master said, sheathing his sword.
"No, sir, I was watching you."
"You'll have to develop better eyes. But I think that's enough for right now." He stripped off his shirt and wet it at the well, wiping the blood from his chest. "Not too bad," he murmured again. "I'd say this was a sake occasion, but you've had entirely too much sake recently. However, I'll let you have the rest of the day for a holiday, to do what you please. Take some money with you, go into town or something."
This was such a rare treat that Niitsu's jaw dropped.
Master Hiko added sternly, "But stay away from the teahouses! And be back before dark."
Niitsu bowed, sheathed his sword, and left in a hurry before Master Hiko changed his mind.
The day was perfect. Even the weather was cooperating, with a bright sun and a breeze to cool it. He had an afternoon's holiday, a little money, he'd just broken through his Master's guard, and he might get to see Hikaru.
He wasn't exactly disobeying Master Hiko by seeing Hikaru. He wasn't going anywhere near the teahouses. Last night Hikaru had mentioned that she was going shopping, beginning on the Street of Cranes where she wanted to buy a new fan. She had also mentioned, at another time in their conversation, that like most geisha she rarely rose early. He hoped to catch her there and perhaps be allowed to escort her for the rest of her shopping.
The fanmaker hadn't seen her yet, so he bought something to eat – he was always hungry, it seemed – and positioned himself in the restaurant where he'd be sure to see her pass by. He'd barely finished eating when he saw her, in the company of another woman, laughing and looking very different and even more beautiful without the full regalia of the geisha. He fished for the money to pay for his meal, his mind on how he was going to get rid of the other woman, but as it turned out, the two separated at the fanmakers' and Hikaru went in alone.
She was delighted to see him when she came out, and spread her new fan for him to admire. In turn, she admired his accomplishment of the morning (he left the blood out of the account, in order to spare her feelings) and invited him to go with her for a walk along the river. By now, much less ignorant, he knew he was being granted an honor, but he wasn't about to gratify her vanity by letting her see that, so he pretended to ponder whether he had enough time to spare until she laughed, realizing his game.
He had no idea exactly where the river was, so, with one hand resting lightly on his arm, Hikaru guided him there. He was expecting what he normally saw at riversides, and was a little bemused that she'd actually want to walk there, but in Edo, what she called a river was nothing more than a wide stream, and the banks had been carved back, flattened, landscaped with lush grass and paths, and planted with trees which, old now, overhung the water and gave shade to the paths. On such a fine day, they were only two among a large number of people walking there, anonymous, yet not crowded, so well laid out were the paths.
He quickly realized that meeting Hikaru in the gardens of the teahouses was no coincidence. She loved gardens, and chattered away about those along the walkways, cooing over particularly pretty arrangements and showing him rare plants or lovely flowers that caught her eye. He listened with amused patience, and when his patience began to wear thin, he distracted her by pointing out the swans in an artificial lagoon. They stopped at a vendor where he spent a few more of his coins for food for the swans, and he watched her as she knelt at the edge of the bank, tossing the crumbs to the graceful birds in the hope that they'd approach her. While he watched, he realized something wonderful. In the hours that he had spent with her that day, he had slowly filled up with an emotion that he'd never experienced before, and it was only now that he was able to give it a name.
He was happy.
He'd been contented before, and satisfied, joyful, triumphant – any number of things that approached happiness. But until today, he'd never actually been happy, not once in his memory. Throughout the afternoon, as the unfamiliar feeling had stolen over him, he'd tested it as he might have tested a sore tooth, often and carefully, wondering what it was. But when she managed to coax a swan close, and it bit her, and she jumped up in alarm, almost lost her balance, and clung to his arm, laughing, he knew what it was. He was happy, and in that moment, he loved her for giving him such a gift.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~
"Are you paying attention?" Master Hiko snapped.
Happiness, Nittsu was discovering, was a bit like having too much sake. The effects lingered into the next day, much more pleasant, but no less distracting to his training. However, if his Master discovered what he'd done yesterday, he knew he'd be in a lot of trouble, so he did his best to get his mind off Hikaru and back on his lesson.
They were working with staffs this morning, for which he was grateful. Instead of gratitude, he should have felt suspicion, but he simply wasn't thinking clearly enough to wonder about it. All his concentration, or all that he could summon, was focused on learning what Master Hiko was trying to teach him.
What he didn't realize was that his lesson this morning had nothing to do with staffs or even with the Hiten Mitsurugi style, at least not directly. He figured that out when, after a particularly deft turn, he saw Master Hiko's staff flicking upward from almost ground level and realized it was going right between his legs.
He had no idea how long it took him to come back to some knowledge of himself as separate from black waves of pain. He'd never felt pain like that in his life, so intense that it consumed him. He didn't even know, for some time, exactly where he'd been hit to cause such agony, until it finally faded enough for him to realize he was laying on the ground of the courtyard, his hands – which didn't need consciousness to know what to do – cradling where it hurt.
Hiko was squatting over him, watching him with amused interest. Niitsu sucked in a breath, then another. When he thought he could open his mouth without throwing up, he said savagely, "You son of a bitch!"
Hiko laughed. "I told you to pay attention."
Niitsu spit out dirt. He still couldn't move any other part of his body but his head. "I'm going to kill you."
"Probably, some day. But not any time soon, at the rate you're going."
"I'm going to do it as soon as I can get up, even if I have to bite you to death." He tested his arm, and his hand moved reluctantly from his crotch. Bracing it on the ground, he slowly started to lift himself, unsure if his legs would hold him, but doggedly determined not to lay there eating any more of the courtyard dust.
As soon as his torso was about six inches off the ground, Hiko dealt him a sharp rap on the back of the head that flattened him again. "You think an enemy would let you get up? Hell, no. If I weren't your kind and thoughtful master, but a real opponent, I would have put my sword in your neck and you'd never recover to thank me for this lesson."
The reply from his ungrateful apprentice was a string of imaginative curses from between clenched teeth.
As if he weren't humiliated enough, Niitsu felt Hiko pat him on the head as if he were a dog. "You'll be all right. As you know, I have complete control over my weapon, whatever weapon I choose, so I didn't damage anything important."
"I hope I get the chance to return this favor."
"You won't. I pay attention, unlike my stupid apprentice. Didn't I tell you to keep your mind on your training and off women?"
"What do women have to do with it?"
"That was the point of the whole lesson, idiot. I'm not a fool. I know how you spent your free time yesterday afternoon."
Oh, shit. "How?"
"I always know what my stupid apprentice is doing. But in this case, it was easy. My hearing may be failing a bit, as you enjoy pointing out, but there's nothing wrong with my nose. You smelled of perfume when you came home, and when I went to the teahouses last night, the merest word brought me all the gossip I needed. You should stay away from that woman. The man who's keeping her is not someone you want for an enemy."
"Go to hell."
"You know, you look dirty and hot," Hiko said pleasantly. He rose, went to the well, drew a bucket of cold water, and dumped it on his apprentice's head.
~ : ~ : ~ : ~
Master Hiko did not directly forbid his apprentice to see the geisha again. Niitsu was the best and most focused apprentice he'd ever had, but he was also fifteen years old. He couldn't be said to be just coming into his manhood, because he was such a big kid that girls had been making eyes at him since before he turned twelve, but Hiko was sure this was his first infatuation. Also, for all his obedience, Niitsu was strong-willed and hot-tempered, and if this were more than a passing fancy, it would be the path of wisdom to be careful in how he was handled. Therefore, he issued a (somewhat painful) reminder to Niitsu that morning, that he still had much to learn as an apprentice, lessons with which a woman could only interfere, but he gave no commands.
The "lesson" kept Niitsu at the inn that night, but the next night he disappeared without saying where he was going. This didn't trouble Hiko, who knew he could find him easily enough. What his apprentice had not yet figured out was that there was a purpose to all these visits to men in Edo and other cities all around Japan. Thanks to them, and to favors owed by men whose lives he'd saved, there was little that went on in the entire country that Hiko didn't eventually hear about and understand, never mind within the city. Change was coming – Hiko could practically smell it on the wind. His apprentice would live in a world very different, and probably infinitely more chaotic, than his own. He wanted the boy prepared. He didn't want the Hiten Mitsurugi style to die with him because he failed this apprentice, too, even in the smallest way. He could feel his age catching up with him, and he wasn't sure he could train another. Nor did he think he could ever find another this promising.
He wasn't going to have that potential tossed aside for a woman. But if, as he believed, this was simply a matter of lust, he would leave it to run its natural course. Hikaru was not a stupid woman, or she would never have gained her reputation. She wouldn't jeopardize her relationship with Nakatoni Genjo for a penniless boy, and soon she would make this clear to Niitsu and the whole thing would be over except the boy's ranting.
This is what he believed. But he had not lived a long life by leaving things to chance, and he wanted to verify it. Therefore, he dropped in to the Peachtree teahouse and quietly listened until he discovered where Hikaru was that evening. After that, it was a simple matter to follow her until his stupid apprentice finally caught up with her.
They were sharing sake at a table she'd set up in the garden, apparently quite at home with the ritual and with each other. The familiarity didn't alarm Hiko – that was part of what a geisha did, made men comfortable – but what he saw in his apprentice did. Even in the faint light from the moon and the paper lanterns, he could see a tension in Niitsu's shoulders and hands, an expression in his eyes and a way of pointing his nose, that he only saw when Niitsu was about to learn a new attack and was opening his mind to it totally. As if that weren't bad enough, the woman was sitting with her eyes fixed on his, employing none of the geisha arts which both attracted a man and at the same time kept him at arm's length. He understood, now, why Hikaru had risked Nakatoni's wrath by spending an afternoon in public with Niitsu. This had to be stopped, at once, not only for Niitsu's sake, but for hers.
He slipped away and approached again in a more visible manner, through the garden. When they saw him, both rose and bowed, Niitsu with clumsy haste, Hikaru with grace. Hiko said a polite greeting to the geisha, then ordered his apprentice, "Go back to the inn and pack our things. We leave Edo tonight."
Hiko scowled and lied, "It has nothing to do with this. Do you think I have so little on my mind that I worry about your flirtations? Say goodbye to the lady and obey me."
Under his eye they couldn't make much of a leavetaking, and he could see that it troubled both of them, but he didn't go away. Niitsu did a properly polite job of it, but then spoiled the effect by adding, "We come to Edo every few months, so I'll see you again soon."
When he was gone, Hiko turned to Hikaru and said quietly, "He won't be back any time soon, Lady Hikaru, and perhaps not at all. He's at a particularly important part of his training right now. You understand, I hope."
She turned large, dark eyes to him, eyes full of sadness. They were the kind of eyes poets talked about getting lost in, but at the same time childlike, with a child's acceptance of grief. She looked at him for a long moment, then said, "Yes, Master Hiko. I believe I do." Then she bowed and walked away, leaving everything behind her – the tea table, the sake, Master Hiko, and, he hoped, her affection for Niitsu.
He threw the ends of his cape back, vaulted lightly over the low wall, and headed back to the inn. He had a feeling this would be the last time he saw Edo, and it was a bitter memory to carry away.
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