BALANCE, part 2
by Tari Gwaemir
"The heart beats on and will not stop."
"The key to wielding a sword is balance," said Sai for perhaps the hundredth time. "You must relax but still feel tension; you must remain alert but empty your mind. You must--"
"Think, but not think," Hikaru grumbled, as he shifted his weight and adjusted his grip on the wooden stick that served as his practice sword. He was still too short and inexperienced to attempt using Sai's very sharp and very long blade.
"Exactly. I think you're learning, Hikaru!"
"You've had me swing this thing up and down for weeks. When am I going to do something new?"
"But it isn't only repetition," Sai explained patiently. "Remember, with a real sword, each strike can kill. Imagine your opponent standing in front of you. With each swing, your sword cuts through his skull."
Hikaru sighed and let his stick drop to the ground. "I'm tired."
"Hikaru." Sai folded his arms and looked sternly at the sullen boy. "I thought you said you wanted to learn. I told you it wouldn't be easy."
"I know, I know." Hikaru picked up the stick and straightened, trying to make himself tall, despite his aching back.
Sai looked carefully at him, the short, skinny boy in plain yellow robes, holding a little too tightly onto a curving wooden stick that was meant to approximate a blade but looked more like a cudgel. He winced. Hikaru was wearing his most stubborn expression, with a hint of a pout to his mouth, a tired droop to his shoulders in spite of his best attempt to hold them back. He seemed very young and very tired. Sai shook his head and gestured at the sword, which had been placed carefully against a nearby tree. "Why don't we try something different, then?"
"Will you let me take over your body?"
"For demonstration purposes only," Sai hastened to add.
"No! I told you, I want to learn how to do it myself."
"But Hikaru," Sai said plaintively, "I can't even hold a sword by myself. How else can I show you how to use it?"
Hikaru shook his head stubbornly.
"I promise, it will only be to teach you the basics. As soon as your body learns to remember the movements on its own, I will not possess you again."
Hikaru stared at him with narrowed eyes then finally gave a reluctant nod. He set down the wooden stick and went to retrieve Sai's sword. He held it vertically, hanging straight before him with his right hand, eyeing it carefully before tying the scabbard clumsily to his sash. He pressed his thumb against the guard, grasped the hilt with his right hand, and took a deep breath. "All right. I'm ready."
He drew the sword in one smooth sweep. Sai closed his eyes and felt the strange jerk of entering another person's body. He opened his eyes--and Hikaru's opened as well. He looked down at his--Hikaru's--hand, which held the sword, his sword, in an awkward grip. He grasped the hilt with both hands, noted the familiar yet so nearly forgotten sensation of leather against his palms, and blinked to realize that he had tears in his eyes.
Are you--you're happy, aren't you?
Sai smiled with Hikaru's mouth. "Yes, Hikaru. More than words can ever say."
At first, it was strange to lose all control over his body and yet still inhabit it, as if he was some sort of puppet. It was even odder to have his face contort into expressions that were not his own--Sai smiled more widely, with his eyes widened in delight--and his arms and legs move fluidly, with none of his usual abrupt force. Hikaru couldn't help envying a little the grace with which Sai managed to perform every drill, despite the uncooperative body with its unaccustomed limbs.
"But you see, Hikaru," Sai told him when he asked, "you must learn to move with your body, not against it. The more natural the movement, the more beautiful the form."
Hikaru found himself changing his stride and everyday gestures to fit the gliding, flowing steps and swings of the drills that Sai performed with his body. The sweep of the broom was like the curve traced by the tip of the sword as it sliced through an opponent's torso. The slide of his feet against the temple's floors was like the steps taken in the acceleration of a strike to an opponent's head. He held his head a little higher, met his elders' eyes a little longer--in a hundred subtle ways, he was shifting into someone new.
"Tell me about the White Chrysanthemum," Hikaru said one day, while scrubbing pots for the temple kitchens. "Are they all powerful magicians, as old Baba says?"
"Magicians? I suppose what we do might seem like magic. But in a sense, it is simpler than that. The Guild serves balance, the flux of yin and yang that governs the universe."
Hikaru frowned. "What does is that supposed to mean?"
"The sage will tell you that there are two principles in the universe--night and day, water and fire, earth and heaven--and that both are necessary for the natural order to continue. The cycle of the seasons, the daily surrender of day to night then night to day--all are signs of yin and yang waxing and waning in the natural world."
"Like life and death," Hikaru muttered.
"Yes, like life and death. But the universe is imperfect, and the balance can be upset. In such occasions, chaos erupts and demons can cross over."
"Demons? Is that what the monster that attacked Akari was?"
"'Demon' is a convenient name for it, yes, but 'monster' will do as well. But that wasn't the first time you've met one, Hikaru. Remember how you nearly drowned at the river?"
Hikaru scowled. "I still don't understand it. The river isn't that deep, and I've been swimming since I was five. But I felt like something was trying to stop me, as if the water was trying to trap me in a cage."
"An imbalance, Hikaru. Not strong enough for a demon to manifest itself, but enough for it to attempt to attack you." Sai hesitated, then continued, his voice a little nervous, "I think you attract them."
"Attract them?!" Hikaru exclaimed. "But why? What's wrong with me?"
"I'm not sure. But surely it wasn't a coincidence that a demon manifested near the temple shortly after another one had tried to attack you."
Hikaru frowned even more. "Am I dangerous?"
"No, of course not. The White Chrysanthemum looks for children like you and trains them to fight these creatures." Sai gave a little sigh. "I was one of them myself."
"Humans all attract imbalance, Hikaru. The desire to win, to dominate. Even the desire to shine. Some of us want more than others. We channel this strength into serving the balance, until we come to peace with ourselves."
Hikaru pursed his lips and thought for a while as he rinsed out the last pot. "Is that why you became a ghost? Because you haven't found peace? Because you still want something so badly that you can't rest?"
Sai looked taken aback. His eyes grew very wide, and for a moment he looked very young, almost as young as Hikaru. "Perhaps--perhaps you're right."
A year passed, and then another. Hikaru grew familiar with the sword, accustomed to the feel of its hilt in his hands. Sai nagged at him to practice at every spare moment, and soon he even dreamed at night in strikes and lunges, in flashing blades and imaginary opponents.
"He's changed," the elders murmured as they observed him grow more serious and sometimes absent-minded. He finished his chores quickly but would forget to return for meals; he no longer played pranks with the other acolytes but sat alone, polishing the sword that he always carried by his side.
"Perhaps he's growing up," said the abbot and watched him closely.
On his thirteenth birthday--the last day he could remain at the temple as an acolyte--the abbot summoned Hikaru to the central shrine. The master of acolytes forced Hikaru into his best robes and new sandals, strapped the sword to his waist with a wide embroidered sash, and walked him to the door, lecturing him to behave his best.
"And remember to bow three times before the altar! Three times, and then another half-bow!"
"Yes, Master Noguchi," Hikaru repeated, rolling his eyes. Akari, who had turned thirteen a few weeks before, stuck her tongue out at him as she walked past him in the courtyard. She was wearing a disciple's robes but little else about her had changed. Hikaru made a face but was hurried along before he could exchange any words.
"Go in," the master of acolytes said solemnly, giving him a gentle push. "The abbot is waiting."
Hikaru took off his sandals and stepped inside. The floor here was very old, smooth and grey from the passage of many feet before his. He walked silently across the room, stopped at the red cushion lying several steps away from the huge, empty altar, and prostrated himself three times. As he got up to his feet and made his final half-bow, he heard a voice behind him say, "I see you've held onto the sword."
He turned around, startled. The abbot, as wrinkled and serene as ever, was sitting on an elaborate varnished chair. He gestured for Hikaru to sit down.
"Well, young Shindou, you turn thirteen today. With the years of labor you've devoted in service to the gods, you have paid off any debts that you may have to this temple. You are now faced with a choice: to stay and become a disciple, or to leave and risk the dangers of the world beyond these grounds."
"If you choose to leave, we will offer you a week's worth of food and a change of clothes to aid you on your journey. If you choose to stay, you will move into the disciples' quarters at the other end of the courtyard."
"Oh, um---thank you, Your Reverence."
"You have until the end of today to make your decision. But I find," and the abbot leaned forward a little to speak, "most people have made their decisions already in their hearts."
Hikaru exhaled loudly and dug the heels of his hands into his knees. Sai?
What do you think I should do?
"What do you want to do?"
Hikaru looked blankly at the wood-grain patterns on the floor. He did not know where to begin. The chance to leave the temple, to explore the world outside--they had all dreamed of it of course, had even spoken of running away at times, but now, faced with the opportunity, he could not speak. He stared at the backs of his hands, resting on knees covered by the yellow robes he had been wearing ever since he could remember. He thought of the quiet daily rhythms of temple life, unbroken except for the occasional prank on Master Noguchi, the childish insults shared with Akari, the broken pot, the rare festival banquet.
And then, as he looked at his hands and at the floor, he suddenly remembered the image of a boy moving swiftly like a serpent, striking with his blade of a fang into the heart of a faceless, misshapen demon. The arc traced by the shining sword, the intent resolve in the boy's face. The damp collar of his heavy robes. The ivory petals of a single chrysanthemum flower, pure against the overturned earth in which it had fallen.
He lifted his head and met the abbot's eyes. Before he could speak, the abbot nodded and got up from his seat.
"Goodbye, Shindou Hikaru."
Hikaru stood up, somewhat shakily. "Thank you, Your Reverence." He did not know what else to say, so he bowed instead.
"No need for that now," the abbot murmured, his face still serene. Hikaru walked past him to the door, stopped and looked back. The abbot's back was turned. He left quickly.
As he stepped outside the temple courtyard, with a bundle of clothes wrapped up with a week's worth of food under his arm, he let out a long sigh. Sai, who had followed him in silence, asked, "What now, Hikaru?"
Hikaru slid one foot forward against the dusty road. He touched the sword at his hip. "Isn't it obvious? I'm going to find the White Chrysanthemum."