BALANCE, part 5
by Tari Gwaemir
Hikaru and Waya held their swords at their sides, waiting for the signal to begin. Their bodies seemed to shake with tension, and they avoided each other's gaze. The Masters, seated in an elevated pavilion at one end of the courtyard, observed them with impassive faces.
"Both candidates defeated Isumi, so this will be the final duel," Ogata murmured, as he leaned forward for a closer look. "Who do you think will win, Meijin?"
The Meijin did not answer, but old Kuwabara laughed in his hoarse, sputtering voice and challenged, "Shall we place a bet? What are the stakes?"
Ogata crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at the other Master. "The new sword with which His Highness gifted you last month for your long service at court, Lord Kuwabara. Against a cask of plum wine delivered to me last week from my estates."
"A heavy price you're setting, Ogata," Kuwabara commented, but his eyes gleamed. "But I'll take that bet. The boy on the right is sure to win."
Ogata held back a frown. "The one on the right? Shindou Hikaru?"
"Is that his name?" Kuwabara gave another creaking laugh. "There's something unusual about him."
"But the other candidate, Waya, is taking the exam a second time," Ogata pointed out with a thin smile. He could not entirely hide his irritation. He hadn't expected Kuwabara to share his intuition.
"No matter. That boy will win." Kuwabara leaned an elbow on one knee, his wrinkled face contorted into a smug smile.
Shinoda struck the gong, signalling the duel to begin. For a long moment, the two opponents stood still, their faces unfocused, almost blind, as they assessed each other. Hikaru thought wildly of all that he knew about Waya--how he scrunched up his nose before reciting something from memory, his habit of holding the tip of the sword a little higher than usual, the mended patch in his robe--and told himself frantically to clear his mind, to stop thinking, to focus on the opponent before him. Not Waya, but enemy, he tried to tell himself. There could only be one winner.
Where is balance in a duel where one person wins and the other loses everything?
Waya lifted his sword above his head. He took a step forward. Hikaru's mouth felt dry. They shifted a little to the side. Hikaru took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. At that moment, he saw the sword fall towards him, his mind cleared, and he sidestepped the blow. Waya had sped past him, but pivoted quickly; Hikaru was already there, waiting and ready. They attacked each other simultaneously. Their blows landed on each other's shoulders, as they moved past each other again, the momentum of their strikes carrying them to opposite sides of the courtyard. Hikaru turned and sprinted back, his wooden sword held to the side. Waya feinted with a strike to the wrist but Hikaru avoided the blow and aimed for his head; Waya tilted his head away just in time and circled to the side. Hikaru turned quickly to face him and found the sword already reaching for his head. He stepped back, then leaped forward: his sword aiming for the throat. Waya's eyes grew wide; he seemed to freeze. At the final second, Hikaru lifted his sword and brought it crashing down on Waya's head. He held nothing back, as if the entire tension and force in his body had concentrated itself in the instant of that swing. He sped past the other boy, who fell to his knees.
Hikaru lowered his sword. He was almost afraid to turn around.
He heard applause. "Well done," said Shinoda, who gently took the wooden sword from his hand.
"Waya. Is Waya all right?" His voice felt very far away.
"He's being taken care of. He will recover."
Hikaru exhaled. He felt limp and drained. He followed Shinoda to the pavilion, where the other Masters waited. He bowed, feeling rather like a puppet on strings.
The Meijin stood, his expression solid and impassive. He said quietly, in a voice as calm and unreadable as his face, "Congratulations, Shindou Hikaru. You have been accepted as an apprentice of the White Chrysanthemum."
"Sit, Shindou," the Meijin said. Hikaru looked about the room--again, sparsely furnished, except for two seat cushions and a go board. He wondered if all the Masters had identical rooms, or if this room was the same as the one where Ogata had first brought him, those months before.
The Meijin placed a stone on the board, his fingers slow and deliberate. "Did you know, Shindou, that this board can be used for divination?"
"The black and white of the stones are said to represent the yin and yang in the universe. What is created on this board reflects the order of the world around us. Place a stone on the board, Shindou."
Hikaru glanced at Sai in panic, but took a white stone from the board. He turned it over in his fingers. Sai? What should I do?
Sai held up his hands helplessly and said, "I cannot play this game for you, Hikaru."
Hikaru closed his eyes. He set the stone down blindly on the board and then opened his eyes. The Meijin remained silent, answering him with another stone. Hikaru continued setting down stones without any knowledge of what was transpiring, until there was a pattern of loosely scattered black and white on the go board. The Meijin closed the bowl of black stones and said, "Interesting."
"They say that one can read a person's fate in the stones he sets down on a go board. Yours seems unusual. I must admit, I'm not certain how to interpret it."
Hikaru gave another swift nervous glance at Sai, but kept his attention on the board.
"Every apprentice is given a first task before he is assigned to a Master. I'm afraid yours will be as unusual as this pattern you have set down in stones."
"Yes, a task. Sometimes as simple as walking around one of the gardens or as complicated as sealing a demon. Yours will be to journey to the place where your path began."
"But that means--am I to leave?"
"And return, of course." The Meijin gave him a sharp look. "You will return."
Hikaru frowned and bit his lip. "But I don't understand. Am I supposed to find something, Master?"
"Perhaps. Your heart will know that better than I."
Hikaru gave a soft snort, but tried to hold back his frustration. The Meijin is more obscure than you, Sai, he complained silently.
"Fare well on your journey, Shindou." The Meijin stood up and left the room.
Hikaru slowly got up to his feet, still bewildered. He slowly walked a long, roundabout route back to the dormitories and slid open the door to the room he shared with the other novitiates. It was empty. He picked up his sword and strapped it to his waist. He surveyed the room and was surprised to find that he had nothing to pack.
He returned to the courtyard. The gate to the school was at the other end, the door still swinging open and closed. He paused and glanced back at the worn-out, ramshackle buildings of the school. He turned and crossed the courtyard. When he had reached the door, a voice called out, "Shindou."
He looked around. Touya Akira was standing by the gate, his face half in shadow. He was dressed in the same heavy embroidered robes that he had been wearing when Hikaru had first seen him, long ago. "Yes?"
"May I see your sword?"
Hikaru frowned. "Why do you want to see it?"
"Please. May I take a look at the blade?"
Hikaru hesitated, but the curiously intent look on Akira's face persuaded him to unsheathe the sword. He held it out with both hands.
Akira took it carefully, and delicately turned it to better examine the design on the guard. His eyes narrowed. "I knew it. This design on the guard marks it as a sword of Shuusaku's. Where did you find it?"
"Haven't you heard of him? A Master of the Guild. He lived a few centuries ago."
The ghost had a worried, almost guilty expression. He said slowly, "Shuusaku--that was Torajirou's name, under the Guild."
Akira continued, looking pensive, "They say that Shuusaku had been brilliant, a gem that appears only once in an era. Some even wonder if he could have--well. If he could have reversed the decline of the Guild. But he did not live long enough to accomplish it."
"What? Did something happen to him?" asked Hikaru sharply.
"He died young. Very young. They say he died while battling a demon." Akira shook his head and handed the sword back to him. "Interesting that you should have his sword."
"I found it in a river," Hikaru said truthfully.
Akira gave him an incredulous glance. "Well. You're a bit of a mystery, Shindou Hikaru. You turn up at this school alone and out of nowhere, and in a matter of months, you defeat all the other candidates for apprenticeship to enter the Guild."
Hikaru shrugged, uncomfortable. "Luck, I suppose."
"No. Not luck. Master Ogata said that you had virtually no formal training before you entered, and yet you--" Akira abruptly paused and looked annoyed with himself. He shook his head. "In any case. I look forward to sparring with you when you return."
Hikaru glared at him. "I do too."
Akira bowed and left. Hikaru opened the door and walked outside.
"Tell me about how Torajirou died," Hikaru said to Sai one day, when they were alone on a deserted deck. They had boarded a barge, this time more smoothly, paying the fee with a few coins that Hikaru had remembered to acquire by selling his old temple robes. He gazed down at the murky waters of the river passing by below.
Sai froze, his face blank and unreadable. "What do you want to know?"
"Touya Akira said that he died young."
"Yes. Yes, he did."
"How long did you spend in his body? Five years? Ten?"
"Twelve. He found me when he was very young."
"I see." Hikaru leaned his chin on his arms. "What happened?"
"I found the demon. I had searched for it for so long--I could sense its influence, you know, in the plague that swept the capital in one year, the rebellion that broke out the next--but I could not determine its location. It moved constantly. I made Torajirou hunt it, as soon as he became a Master, for years and years, until we finally stumbled across it. I took over Torajirou's body and challenged it." Sai fell silent.
"And then? Did you fail to seal it?"
"Not only did I fail to seal it, but it destroyed Torajirou's body. At the last moment, when he knew that I had lost, Torajirou forced me out, threw away the sword and let himself be taken."
"They are monsters, you know. The stuff of nightmares, the spectre of the uncontrollable. They can manifest as human bodies, but in reality, they are amorphous. They consume humans who are unlucky enough to become their victims."
"You never told me this before. You should have told me that he died."
Sai held a sleeve to his mouth. He said, in a muffled voice, "There is much that I should have told you. Do you regret the path you've chosen?"
Hikaru stared at his hands, with its calloused palms and blistered fingers. He remembered the flash of the sword as it swung through the air, the strange sense of looseness and tension as one readied for an attack. He thought of the calm certainty--both terrible and wonderful--that seized his mind when he had faced Waya in that final duel. He recalled Akira's last words, that strange focused expression turned on him. He said, "No, I guess I don't. I can't. I said I would do anything, if it meant that I could shine like him."
Sai did not reply. His eyes were half-closed, as if he was thinking of something very far away.
The barge dropped them off at a town upstream of the temple. They disembarked and followed the riverbank down to where Hikaru had found the sword. "Well," he said, upon reaching the spot. "This is where it began, isn't it? The Meijin told me to come back here. Or at least I figured he meant this place, even if he didn't know it."
Sai nodded and stared at the river. "I spent many, many years here. I watched the waters rise and recede, the tadpoles hatch and grow into frogs and die, perhaps a thousand times." He gave a little shudder. "I hate frogs, you know. Their eyes stare at you so."
Hikaru laughed. He took off his sandals and waded out into the river. He looked back at Sai and asked him, "Sai, what made you stay here?"
Sai looked puzzled. "I have unfinished business, as you well know."
"The demon who slayed the Fourteenth Emperor and killed Torajirou, yes." Hikaru gazed thoughtfully at the river surface. "You told me that humans attract imbalance. Because we want to change things to the way we think they ought to be."
"Yes," said Sai quietly.
"Do you think the demon in this river was attracted to you? The one that nearly drowned me, I mean."
Sai looked startled. "Perhaps. I never thought of that before."
"I think I can feel it. It's still lurking here, waiting for an opening." Hikaru waded a little further into the river. The water seemed to bubble.
Hikaru looked Sai in the eye. "It's your turn."
"Seal this demon. I promised to let you take over, right? As soon as I had a chance." Hikaru closed his eyes and drew the sword.
Sai blinked and found himself in Hikaru's body. He took a step back. The slow ripples in the water grew into waves, into turbulence. He straightened hurriedly, adjusted his grip on the sword, and then--
The river seemed to explode before him, the water rising and falling with a violent splash. Sai leaped out of the water and scrambled onto the bank. He made a complicated gesture with one hand and called out, "By sun and fire, I command you to take human form!"
Hikaru, he wailed, give me some warning before you do that!
I'm sorry, Hikaru said, sounding panicked inside his head, I didn't know it would manifest so quickly!
The water coalesced into a dripping mold of a person. It moved slickly as if gliding on the ground on waves. The edges of its fingers were edged with foam. It attacked with long whips of water emerging from its hands. Sai jumped to avoid them and swung his sword up to block a particularly sudden attack that splashed his face.
"Don't worry, Hikaru, it missed," he said as he lifted his sword above his head. The demon took a step forward, its foot landing on the ground with a faint splash. Sai closed his eyes and focused. The demon would move right, left, then a feint forward--
He leaped just in time to avoid a water whip landing near his feet, and used the momentum to move forward, pushing his sword forward, in a swift, unescapable one-hand strike. The sword sliced through the water demon's head, down to where its heart would be. Sai took a deep breath and plunged forward. The water fell into a puddle. Sai bent over, water dripping down the back of his neck. He gasped for breath. "Hikaru--"
Watch out, Sai!
The puddle was boiling. Sai stared at it in shock. He grasped his sword with both hands and circled the bubbling water warily. It was moving and rising, taking the shape of a person again. As he watched it, he felt a sudden sense of inevitability. He did not need to think anymore about what to do.
The demon rose. He lifted his sword to point at its throat. It drew one hand back. He leaped forward, closed his eyes and found himself without a body. The whip struck at his phantom face--Hikaru's body pushed the sword into its throat. The water frothed, then fell once more. It soaked into the ground. There was a white chrysanthemum resting where it had once stood.
Hikaru touched his forehead, feeling disoriented. The sword felt unusually heavy in his hands. "What happened just now? Is it gone for good?"
There was no response. He looked around. He could not see the ghost. "Sai?" He sheathed his sword and called out more loudly, "Sai? Where are you?"
He walked down the riverbank. "Sai?" He waded out into the river. "Sai!"
He heard no reply, except for the faint rustle of wind against water.
He was standing once again before the gate to the school, the characters on the sign more faded and illegible than he remembered, the door still creaking loudly as it opened and shut with every passing breeze. He pushed open the door and stepped inside. The courtyard, dusty and unswept, like the first time he had seen it. He crossed to the center.
Behind him, the sound of a sword being unsheathed, a swift, slithering sound. He turned around. Akira stood waiting, his sword held out in one hand, the scabbard in the other. His dark hair falling against pale cheeks: a study in contrasts. Hikaru straightened.
Akira spoke first. "You're here. At last."
"Yes," Hikaru answered. "I'm back." There were tears in his eyes.