BALANCE, part 4
by Tari Gwaemir
"Wait for me whenever darkness falls."
The room was unfurnished, except for two cushions, a go board, and a wall scroll inscribed with the words, 自知者明. The sliding screens were opened to reveal a view of the sea encircling the city. Hikaru could smell the salt and moisture in the air. He coughed and said nervously, "I didn't know that the ocean was so close."
The man who had watched his duel with the boy--that is, with Akira--slid the doors closed with a sharp snap. "The school is on a hill."
"Oh, I see."
The man sat down on one of the cushions and motioned for Hikaru to do the same. They studied each other warily across the go board. Finally, the man took out a stone and placed it on the board with a precise rap. Hikaru started at the sound.
"Do you play?" asked the man.
Hikaru shook his head.
"A pity. I find that it provides some insight into the art of the sword." The man stared at the single stone on the board, his expression pensive. "In go too, there is need for balance."
Hikaru shifted on his knees. Sai?
"What is it, Hikaru?"
Who is this man?
"I don't know, but he has the bearing of a skilled swordsmaster."
The man abruptly asked, "So Shindou. What is your business with the Guild?"
Hikaru blinked. "Excuse me?"
"It has been years since a person walked into this school voluntarily. What is it that you want?"
"I--well, I don't really know," Hikaru said, taken aback. He felt a little panicked. How was he supposed to explain it all, the inexplicable desire that had driven him here? Sai, the sword, the demons, Akira--he didn't know where to begin.
The man smirked. "Well, you have some small talent for the sword. Who taught you?"
Hikaru gaped, then stammered, "Uh--well, no one, really."
"What?" the man exclaimed incredulously. "No one? You must have had a teacher."
Hikaru imagined telling the truth, that he, in fact, had been taught by a ghost, and inwardly shuddered at the thought. "I, uh, watched an old swordsmaster practice his forms and imitated him."
"On your own?"
Hikaru nodded desperately. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sai suppressing a smile and mentally cursed the ghost.
The man shook his head slowly. "I suspect you're not telling me the whole truth. But no matter. Do you wish to join the Guild?"
Hikaru's eyes widened. "Me? The Guild?"
"Well, of course. Why else would you come here? Although that in itself is unusual."
Hikaru could hear his heart beat loudly in his chest. His hands felt clammy, and he was sure his stomach had twisted itself into some sort of impossible knot. "Yes," he said quickly, his words tripping over one another, "yes, I want to join the Guild. Please."
Despite the old, crumbling appearance of the school, the buildings were not in fact empty or abandoned, only occupied in a haphazard fashion. The man--his name was Ogata, one of the youngest Masters in the Guild, Hikaru had learned--led him through a senseless path through the labyrinth of rooms until they arrived at a long hall occupied by several young men and women, not much older than Hikaru. He walked up to a man who was lecturing them from the front of the room and leaned down to whisper in his ear. The man gave Ogata a sharp look, but nodded, and after speaking to the students, came over to where Hikaru was standing awkwardly. Ogata left, unobtrusively, by another door.
"Shindou Hikaru, I presume," the man said stiffly. "My name is Master Shinoda. I am in charge of training the novitiates. I hear from Master Ogata that you wish to join the Guild."
"Yes, Master Shinoda," Hikaru answered with a deep bow.
"How much do you know about the Guild, Shindou?"
Hikaru bit his lip. "Not much, Master. I know--I've seen what the White Chrysanthemum does, but I didn't even know that a school existed until a few weeks ago."
"Hm. I see. Well, you must understand that this school only trains candidates for apprenticeship. Every year, we hold an examination to select the novitiate that will be accepted into the Guild. You may take the examination up to three times. If you do not pass on your third attempt, you must leave the school."
"What if I pass?" asked Hikaru boldly.
"If you pass, you will be accepted for apprenticeship under a Master of the Guild." Shinoda smiled faintly. "You seem confident."
Hikaru ducked his head and looked at his feet. "No, Master."
"Confidence can be both a flaw and an asset," Shinoda murmured as he returned to the front of the room. Hikaru followed him meekly. "Your fellow novitiates, Shindou."
Hikaru bowed again. The students did not move, but only assessed him quietly with inscrutable expressions. There were four young men, of various ages--two seemed as young as or perhaps even younger than Hikaru--and a young woman, all dressed identically in plain dark gray robes. Hikaru felt out-of-place in his yellow temple garb and shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
"Sit, Shindou." Shinoda gestured to an empty seat. "Now, once more, let us recite the five steps to emptying the heart."
In the mornings, they listened to Shinoda's lectures on swordsmanship. In the afternoons, they practiced forms in the courtyard, under the careful eye of Shinoda's apprentice. In the evenings, they sparred with one another, using wooden practice swords, in one of the gardens. Hikaru became accustomed to the illogical roundabout paths he had to take to reach any place in the complex; they too reinforced the gentle rhythm of life in the school. "They built it like a maze, didn't they, Sai?" he asked once. "Did they do it on purpose?"
Sai rested a chin in one hand. "Perhaps. As you memorize the paths you take to reach different parts of the school, you stop attempting to make sense of it and simply follow the direction your feet are used to."
"I suppose it also keeps out strangers like me. I guess I was lucky."
Sai looked at him affectionately. "I think there is more than simple luck to the road you follow, Hikaru."
Studying the sword under the Guild was very different from learning it from Sai. Sai had spent two years teaching Hikaru the reflexes and instincts of the swordsmaster in the most direct method possible, that is, by possessing his body. Although Hikaru had insisted on practicing without Sai's intervention as well, he had little experience sparring with an actual opponent, other than a few duels with Kaga during his time on the barge. Waya, a fellow novitiate, commented, "The strange thing about you, Hikaru, is that you have this very classic, almost old-fashioned form, but you almost never know how to respond to your opponent. Each strike is executed perfectly, but you don't notice what your opponent is doing."
"He's right," Sai told him later. "Timing is everything."
"I thought balance was everything," Hikaru quipped, but he put more energy into sparring at nights, dueling as often as he could with the other students. He came to realize that there were different styles of swordsmanship, different strengths and different weaknesses. Waya, for example, liked to play mental games, feinting and tricking his opponents into attacking before they were ready. Isumi, the eldest of the novitiates, held his sword like a calligrapher wielding a brush--his every movement spoke of artistry--but he lacked confidence and faltered at the crucial moment. Nase, the only girl among the candidates, was flexible and athletic; dueling with her usually left Hikaru short of breath. Ochi, a short, stocky boy, did not attack often, but his strikes landed like a hammer. Fukui, who was a year younger than Hikaru, forced his opponent into a flurry of clashes and exchanges before making an all-or-nothing attack. Hikaru realized that he had unconsciously inherited Sai's own characteristic style, without much say in the matter. He began to experiment, improvising wildly on the familiar forms to attempt new patterns of attack.
Sai had spoken of the Guild's purpose in vague, almost mystical aphorisms, but Shinoda put them to memorizing the cycle of elements, the sources of imbalance, the ways in which disruptions in ki could be detected, the three lethal strikes that could seal a demon. Hikaru had trouble remembering them all and got up early in the mornings to practice reciting the five proverbs of the Meijin, who presided over the Guild.
"Are you--" Sai hesitated.
"What is it, Sai?"
"You promised I could have use of your body. Only--"
Hikaru looked up. "Sai. If anyone saw me practicing while you were controlling my body, they would immediately know something was different."
"Yes, I know." Sai gave a longing look to the sword lying by Hikaru's pallet. He sighed.
Hikaru echoed the sigh and stared at the ceiling for a long moment. "Look," he muttered, "as soon as I get a chance, I'll let you take over."
"Hikaru!" Sai's despondent expression changed into a wide, ecstatic smile.
Hikaru rolled his eyes at the ghost. "Well, you still need to find the demon that slayed the Fourteenth Emperor, right?"
Sai's face grew serious, his eyes half-closing in contemplation. "Yes. The imbalance is still present."
"Even after all those years?"
"Why do you think the Guild is in this state? Hiding behind a broken-down building in the capital, with so few Masters that out of just six candidates for apprenticeship, it can only accept one."
Hikaru shook his head slowly. "One thousand years."
Sai repeated, "One thousand years." He sighed and tried to smile. "But don't worry, Hikaru. Balance will be restored."
The examination for apprenticeship was held on the day before the new year. Hikaru, dressed in his thin robes, shivered as he waited with the other candidates in the courtyard. He could see rows of small icicles hanging from all the roofs. He jumped from foot to foot and tucked his hands under his arms.
"Cold?" Waya asked.
Hikaru gave him a severe look. "Of course. Aren't you?"
"I'm from the north. This weather is normal for me." Waya grinned.
Hikaru scowled. "Lucky you."
"Did you hear? You'll be facing Fukui in the first duel."
"Yes. What about you?"
"Nase." Waya sighed loudly. "I took the examination last year, you know."
"You did? How was it?"
"I lost my first duel. To Touya Akira."
"Akira?" Hikaru asked, startled.
"Yes, Touya. He's the Meijin's only son. Personally trained ever since he could walk. He didn't study in the school as a novitiate, but he entered the examination and defeated everyone without a blink." Waya frowned. "I really hate that sort of person. Thinks he can walk all over us."
"Oh." Hikaru looked thoughtful.
"They call him the Young Dragon, you know," Waya added with a snort.
At that moment, the Masters all stood to attention. The Meijin had arrived.
The first duel with Fukui ended before he even knew it began. Fukui had attempted to push him out of center with a series of quick, lightning-style feints to the wrist and to the head, but Hikaru caught the rhythm of his attacks, and he swung up and down, with a flick of his right arm--before Fukui knew it, the wooden sword had slammed with a dull thwack into his right side. If Hikaru had been wielding an actual sword, his opponent would have been sliced in half. Fukui's face turned white, and he promptly bent over and threw up on the ground. Hikaru stared helplessly as Shinoda led the boy away.
Sai--I didn't mean to--
Sai placed a phantom hand on his shoulder. "You did not hesitate."
I didn't even think, I forgot it was only Fukui, I just moved.
"That was the right thing to do, Hikaru. When you face a real opponent, he will have no mercy either."
Hikaru took a deep breath. He had passed the first round.
He faced Isumi next. Isumi had already taken the examination twice. This year would be his last chance to enter the Guild. There was a strange sort of calmness on his face as he faced Hikaru, as if he had nothing to lose. Hikaru swallowed and raised his sword above his head. Isumi too held his sword up, ready to attack. They circled around each other slowly, waiting for an opportunity to attack. Hikaru's hand shook, just a little.
"Hikaru!" Sai shouted, alarmed. At that instant, Isumi struck.
Hikaru did not know what exactly happened next, but he swung his sword down and around instinctively. He heard the clatter of wood on stone, and he saw the tip of his sword pressed to Isumi's throat. Isumi's hands were empty.
They backed away and bowed. Isumi turned away immediately and lifted one hand to his face. Hikaru stared at his hands and clenched them into fists. Sai. Did you--you didn't interfere, did you?
Sai looked at him reproachfully. "How could you ask such a thing?"
But I--how did I do that? I couldn't do that before, could I?
Sai stayed silent for a long moment.
"You are learning what it means to face an enemy, not only an opponent. The instinct to kill."
Hikaru gripped his sword tightly, feeling the rough wood press into his palms. I didn't know it was like this. I didn't expect this.
"Hikaru. Your next opponent."
Hikaru looked up. Waya stood before him, a grim expression on his face. There was a small murmur of quiet commotion among the watching Masters. They both turned to look.
Touya Akira was standing by his father's side. He met Hikaru's eyes. Show me, he seemed to say silently through the space between them, what you have learned.