BALANCE, part 3
by Tari Gwaemir
"Souls are like armed battalions."
Traveling, Hikaru discovered, was a lot less exciting than one would expect for a young man who had never ventured more than a league beyond temple grounds. He walked along the river, which lay smooth and placid to the left as it curved around and away from the distant mountains where it began. Follow the river long enough, he reasoned, and sooner or later they would reach the capital, close to where the river became the sea.
"And the capital," Hikaru said triumphantly, "is where we'll find news of the White Chrysanthemum."
"In my day, the Masters of the Guild took refuge in remote mountains where they could meditate and practice the sword in peace," said Sai, glancing wistfully at the far-off peaks behind them.
"But back then, the Guild was everywhere. Now it's just a story. If it's still around, then it must be at the capital," Hikaru argued, and added confidently, "Everything is at the capital, you know."
For several days, Hikaru walked on steadily, pausing only to eat under the shade of the occasional tree and to practice his forms under Sai's tutelage. His body had grown sufficiently accustomed to the movements so that he now insisted on practicing without Sai's interference as much as possible.
"I understand," he said impatiently whenever Sai asked if he could "borrow" Hikaru's body to demonstrate. "Let me try it on my own. I can do it without your help."
"I know my body learns a lot more quickly when you possess it, but my mind doesn't at all. I'm going to do this by myself," Hikaru said with a stubborn set to his chin.
Sai pouted and watched mournfully as Hikaru attempted a sequence of three strikes against a hastily assembled straw dummy. "You're waving around a sword, not responding to your opponent. Remember, the sword is about balance; it is a dialogue between two people."
"How can you have a conversation with a demon?"
"But in a sense, that is the meaning behind the act of sealing. In the moment when you draw the demon unwittingly into your rhythm of attack, you connect it back to the natural order, the universal balance."
Hikaru huffed. "That makes no sense, Sai."
Sai smiled. "Then just remember this: a battle can be won before you even move your sword, if you know the difference between wanting to win and knowing you'll win. Demons don't comprehend that."
"Huh. You mean, when you fight, you're trying to 'tell' the demon that it's going to lose, and if it understands you, you've won?"
Sai looked astonished, but smiled more brightly than ever, as he replied, "I think you're learning, Hikaru! Why don't you try that last drill again?"
At the nearest town, Hikaru headed straight for the river docks, where sleepy-looking barges bobbed up and down lazily in the water and fast little sloops strained impatiently against their ropes with the lightest breeze. He halted and gazed in awe at the vast red sails, billowing like giant fans, casting shadows on the docks.
"Hey, watch it, kid," said a voice, as a hand clamped down on his shoulder and roughly shoved him to the side. "People have better things to do than stand around and gape at the boats, you know."
"Oi, who're you calling--" Hikaru closed his mouth and gulped as he took a closer look at the person who had pushed him. An older boy with sloppy hair and a narrow-eyed smirk that drawled, "Don't mess with me," to everyone who didn't move out of his way. Hikaru stepped back hastily. "Uh, sorry. Very sorry."
The boy nodded and shifted the pack he held under one arm. "Whatever. Stay out of the way, kid, the docks are a busy place. Say, you're looking for a ride, aren't you?"
"How'd you know?" asked Hikaru, somewhat defensively.
"I know 'cause the color of your robes marks you for a temple brat. I imagine that's why no one's tried to rob you yet. They all know you don't have anything worth stealing. Except that sword." The boy looked at him with a speculative grin.
Hikaru gripped the sword-hilt almost unconsciously. "No one can take this sword from me," he said quietly.
"Oh, big words from a small kid, eh? Take my advice, go run along back home to your--I don't know, prayer beads. The world isn't a nice place, you know."
"I can't go back. I've left for good."
"The more fool you." The boy gave a grunt as he made ready to move on.
"Wait!" The boy turned and gave him an annoyed look. Hikaru bit his lip, then forced himself to ask, "Uh, do you know I can get to the capital?"
"Take a boat," the boy retorted immediately, but relented at Hikaru's crestfallen expression. "Okay, the barge I'm on is headed for the capital, and if you have enough money, you can probably hitch a ride. Got anything you can pay with?"
"What about that sword?"
"Not for sale," Hikaru said abruptly, his hand reaching for the hilt again.
"Can't help you then." The boy walked off whistling.
Hikaru looked around the docks again, feeling more helpless than ever. Sai, what could I possibly sell? My spare set of robes?
"I don't know. Surely a kind captain could allow you a free ride?"
"Nothing's free," Hikaru grumbled.
"That's all too true," said a familiar voice, and Hikaru turned to find the boy from before grinning down at him.
"Much help you are," he muttered.
"Look, kid, I feel sorry for you, so I'll let you sneak onto my ship if you can do one thing."
"Beat me in a fight with that sword of yours."
A small crowd of town boys had gathered to watch the fight. Hikaru and his opponent bowed to each other and unsheathed their swords. Hikaru muttered under his breath, "Sai?"
"What do you think? Is he good?"
"He's had some training. Be careful."
The other boy was holding a sword too, although it was newer and longer than Hikaru's. They circled warily around each other, with the tips of their blades turned away and hidden behind their back.
"Sai? I've just realized something."
"But I've never fought against a real opponent before!"
At that moment, the boy attacked, lifting his sword around to aim for Hikaru's wrist. Hikaru instinctively stepped back, brought his own sword up and swung it in an arc that aimed for the side of the head. The boy dove out of the way, before the sword could slice through his skull, but as he straightened, Hikaru noticed the shallow cut at his temple.
"First blood to you, kid," the boy said gruffly.
Hikaru began to breathe again. He pointed his sword at the boy's throat. "Come on."
With a loud shout, the boy attacked, but Hikaru was faster--in the blink of an eye, he had the flat of his blade crack against the top of his opponent's head. The boy gave a stifled groan, but as Hikaru lowered his sword in hesitation, he slid his sword up and around and pressed the blade to Hikaru's stomach.
"Lucky this thing isn't sharp. Unlike yours."
Hikaru could feel the edge of the sword against his ribs with every exhalation. He tried not to panic. "I suppose you've won then."
"No, you went for the killing strike. If you hadn't turned the blade like that, I would have died first. Your mistake was in underestimating me and your sword."
Hikaru focused on keeping his breaths as short and shallow as possible. "Er, yes," he said in a strangled whisper.
The boy finally lowered his sword and resheathed it. Hikaru sighed in relief.
"The name's Kaga. Nice to meet you."
"Shindou Hikaru. Nice to meet you too."
"Well, Shindou, you all ready to go to the capital? The barge heads out in ten minutes."
It took them nearly a month to reach the capital, what with the barge visiting almost every town and city along the way. The captain, after some persuasion, allowed Hikaru to stay in return for hauling cargo to and fro whenever they stopped to trade. The long days between towns, as the barge slowly inched along the river, were spent sparring with Kaga--although with wooden sticks instead of real swords--and talking to Tsutsui, another older boy around Kaga's age who worked on the ship.
Where Kaga was all brash confidence and exaggerated swagger, Tsutsui was self-deprecating politeness. Wholly unremarkable except for his remarkable memory for stories. Hikaru pestered him constantly with questions about the capital and, more cautiously, the Guild of the White Chrysanthemum.
"The White Chrysanthemum? Yes, one could say that they still exist, although nothing at all like the legend. I imagine they just adopted the name. They have their school in the capital, where they train diviners and dowsers for Imperial service. Hardly like the sorcerors and warriors from long ago."
"Oh," Hikaru said with some disappointment. "The school is in the capital, you say?"
"Yes, in a dilapidated old building, not far from the new market."
Later, when he was alone, Hikaru asked Sai, "Did the Guild have a school in your day?"
"Not a school, no, although Masters would take several pupils at a time. But in Torajirou's day, there was indeed a school, not far from where your temple is now. That is how he found me, when he picked up this sword from a room he wasn't supposed to enter."
"Hm. Well, it's a start at least," Hikaru said with a sigh.
When the barge at last pulled in at one of the city docks, Hikaru was the first person off the boat, his mouth fallen open in astonishment at the sight of the endless rows of buildings, built in a cacophony of styles, and the crowds and crowds of people who swarmed like busy ants along the narrow streets. He saw street vendors offering fresh fish and vegetables laid out in boxes on the pavement, beggars lying prostrate against the walls with thin hands holding out dull brass bowls, elaborate sedan chairs shielded with red curtains being carried on the shoulders of bareheaded men, rickety carts holding precarious piles of sealed urns and jars, musicians fiddling or plucking at many-stringed instruments, important-looking officials dressed in scarlet robes pushing past peasants and merchants and ordinary townspeople: in a glance, a sprawling, moving city, too busy to know any rest.
"Welcome to the capital," Kaga drawled as he slung a friendly arm about Hikaru's shoulders. He pointed at an elaborate pagoda that towered over the rest of the city. "There's the palace, where the Emperor sits, smoking his long pipe and playing his games of chess."
"The palace," Hikaru echoed dutifully, but he only gave it a scant glance before turning away to scan the buildings. Tsutsui had mentioned the "new market"; where would that be?
"Kaga, do you know how to get to the new market?"
The older boy gave him a sharp look. "Is this about the White Chrysanthemum you keep asking Tsutsui about?"
Kaga frowned. "Look, kid, I don't know why you're so obsessed with the Chrysanthemum, but I can tell you it's not what you're looking for."
Hikaru narrowed his eyes. "I'll be the judge of that myself."
Kaga looked at him for a long moment. Hikaru fidgeted under the scrutiny, but met the other boy's eyes. "Okay. Go along this road until you see the old gate. Make a right, past the gate, and walk until you come into an open square. You'll recognize it by the smell. The school's at the opposite end of the square, between a merchant house and an inn."
Hikaru relaxed and grinned. "Thanks, Kaga."
"Good luck, kid. You dreamers need all the luck you can get."
The school of the Guild of the White Chrysanthemum was indeed a dilapidated old building, marked by a sign in peeling white paint above a door that did not lock properly. Hikaru watched it creak as it swung slowly back and forth, and nervously touched the sword at his side. "Does this place look right to you, Sai?"
Sai frowned, his expression rather aghast at the state of the building. "The characters are correct, but surely--I would never have believed that--"
Hikaru straightened his shoulders. "Well, the door is hanging open. Let's go in."
They crossed an empty, unswept courtyard. The sliding doors were all closed and the steps were bare. Hikaru walked up to what seemed like the central room and took off his sandals. He opened the door.
There was no one inside.
"What's going on?" he cried out in exasperation.
Sai shook his head. "I don't know either. I've never seen this place before."
Hikaru slid open another screen and stepped out into a dim hallway. He followed it to its end, where there was a wooden door that swung open with a push. Behind it, a small symmetric garden, marked with curiously shaped stones in each of the four corners. At the center, Hikaru immediately noticed, there blossomed a chrysanthemum tree. He stepped into the garden. "Sai, look--"
"Hikaru, behind you!"
He turned around with a jerk and found the tip of a sword resting not more than a hand's width from his chin.
"Who are you?"
He looked up at the voice. It belonged to a boy about his own age, who held the sword with a steady hand. He was dressed in heavy silk robes and had chin-length hair. His eyes held a curiously familiar expression. Hikaru blinked and wondered if he had seen him before.
"I will repeat myself. Who are you?"
"Shindou. Shindou Hikaru."
There was a sudden gleam in the boy's eyes. "You have a sword. Do you know how to use it?"
Hikaru gave a curt nod. The boy stepped back. "Draw it please. Do me the honor of fighting me."
Hikaru blinked at the words. Where had he heard them before? He looked at the boy again and suddenly realized why he recognized the expression.
He bowed. He drew his sword.
Without a warning, the boy attacked, his blade moving toward the throat only to lift up at the last moment to strike the head. With perfect control, the sword stopped short before it touched him, but Hikaru could still hear the sharp whistle of the steel against air, could almost feel the pressure of the blade against his hair. He had barely moved. Now he could not move at all.
The boy sighed and drew back. "I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."
"Wait," Hikaru blurted out, his voice strangely harsh. "Wait."
The boy stared at him in surprise.
"One more chance." Hikaru tapped the tip of his sword against the other's.
Once again, the attack came without warning, but Hikaru was prepared. He sidestepped the strike and aimed for the wrist--but his opponent had anticipated it and had stepped in closer. Hikaru too closed in, until they were only a fist's width apart, the guards of their swords locked against each other, their blades dangerously close to each other's face. He looked at the boy, willing himself not to falter at the intensity, the pressure which demanded that he step back, give way, yield footing. The sense of humiliation burned in him; he could not lose, not to him of all people--
Before he knew it, he had been pushed away, his sword swiftly dislodged from his grip. He stared at his hands in disbelief.
There was applause from the other side of the garden. A man approached them with a satisfied smile. "I've never seen a novice do so well against Akira before. You have potential."
Hikaru could not reply. He bent over to pick up his fallen sword.
"You carry a sword with the mark of the White Chrysanthemum," Akira said, his voice low and serious.
The man looked amused. "Shindou, was it?" he asked.
Hikaru nodded. His throat was too tight to speak.
"I'll have to remember that name."
"So will I," said Akira.