“These tales are dark and terrible,” Kaimetsu-Uo said morosely. “Was my grandfather’s time truly so bleak? Did Fu Leng’s rise to power overshadow everything?”
“No,” Unmei replied with a smile. “Not everything.”
The Perfect Gift
by Shawn Carman
The young samurai stopped for a moment to rest. Wiping his brow with the sleeve of his kimono, he withdrew a rice ball from his travel pack and munched on it noisily. After weeks of travel, he was beginning to have second thoughts about his purpose here. If he centered his thoughts on his goal, then he could keep his will focused and his mind clear. When he considered the enormity of the questions he must answer, however, he began to grow frustrated by the task set before him.
Ironically, he had no one to blame but himself. He had always been the most talented member of his village, with a quick wit, a ready sword arm, and a dashing smile that could melt the coldest heart. He had felt so certain of his gifts that he had dared travel to the distant realm of Otosan Uchi and competed in the Emperor’s tournament. Against all odds, he had emerged victorious. He was surprised, truth be told. He only wanted to test his strength; he did not expect to become the Emperor’s Champion. On that day, his life became difficult, and not merely due to his new title.
On that day, he met the Lady Doji.
Six months ago…
The fields outside Otosan Uchi were filled with spectators and participants. The city had been completed at long last, and the Emperor had declared a great celebration. Subjects traveled from all across Rokugan to enjoy the revelry. Many came to participate in the trials of strength and skill that the Emperor had sponsored. All of Hantei’s brothers and sisters were present, accompanied by their finest warriors, poets, and craftsmen. The revelry had gone on for days, and showed no signs of winding down.
The young samurai sat apart, quietly cleaning his blade. He had barely spoken to anyone since his arrival. He had little to say. Others mistook his silence for arrogance, but in truth he had little idea what to say. He had lived his entire life in Rokugan’s distant northern provinces, and Otosan Uchi had overwhelmed him. He refrained from speaking partly because he was afraid of saying something foolish, and partly because he wished to preserve his focus.
Focus. That was the key. With a clear mind focused properly on an opponent, it was possible to witness every second as if it were a lifetime. One could view every tiny movement, every twitching muscle. It was this focus, and the ability to react to it as rapidly as the beat of a hummingbird’s wing, that made up the art of iaijutsu his art. Already, he had defeated representatives from the Ki-Rin and Scorpion clans, and a handful of men like himself who owed allegiance to no lord. Now the final match approached, the match he had been preparing himself for all day.
Lady Matsu, called by some the Lady of Lions.
He assumed his stance, as did Matsu. He settled into his focus, fixing her with a pleasant smile, holding one hand above the hilt of his sword as if offering a gift. The mocking pose drew her out. She lunged forward with the same rage and relentless assault that had brought her victory over more than a dozen opponents thus far. She was accustomed to her opponents succumbing to fear, and rightfully so. But this samurai was like no opponent Matsu had ever faced.
He stepped forward, inside her strike, catching Matsu off guard. With a precise strike, he drew his blade and knocked the weapon from her hand. A quick follow-up knocked her to the ground as well, and his blade was at her throat in an instant. The hatred in her eyes was unmistakable, and in that instant the duelist knew he had made an enemy for life.
The Emperor rose from his seat in his private box, a smile on his face. “My congratulations,” he said.
The duelist withdrew his blade and bowed deeply before the Emperor, though his eyes wandered to the lovely woman that stood beside Hantei. She wore robes of the palest blue, and smiled faintly at him.
“What is your name, my friend,” Hantei asked, not noticing the boy’s distraction or merely ignoring it, “that I might tell the Empire who my new champion is?”
“I am Kakita, my liege.”
“Hello, sister,” the Emperor smiled warmly. “Thank you for agreeing to see us so quickly. I know your days are busy indeed, perhaps even more so than mine.”
“Do not be foolish, Hantei-sama,” Doji replied demurely as she bowed deeply. “There will never come a time when I am too busy to see my beloved brother.” She smiled coyly. “Or my Emperor.”
“You honor me, as always.” Hantei smiled. “I have brought a friend to meet you, dear sister.” He regarded Kakita with a knowing look, gesturing for him to step forward. Kakita did so on leaden legs. “This is my personal champion, Kakita. He has also become my friend, and it would honor me greatly for you two to marry. It would strengthen your house considerably, Doji-chan.”
Kakita found himself unable to speak. Back at home, he could charm any woman he wished. A number of ladies longed to call him husband, and he could easily bring even the most conservative among them to a scandalous blush with a smile and a turn of his head. But he had never seen a woman like Doji before. The first sight of her at the contest had stunned him, but to see her this closely moved him beyond words.
The Lady Doji was the most radiant sight he had ever laid eyes upon. Her hair was like a wave of silken ebony, and her eyes the same color as her silken kimono the color of heaven. He had come here thinking of a thousand different ways to win Doji’s heart, but he could not think at all in the presence of such beauty.
“K-konichiwa, Doji-sama,” he finally stuttered, kneeling before her.
“My greetings, Kakita-san,” the Crane Kami said with a bemused expression. “I had heard the Emperor would bring you before me with such a proposal.”
“You had?” Kakita asked.
“Indeed,” Hantei said with a curious expression. “There seems to be no end to your resourcefulness, dear sister.”
“You flatter me, Hantei-sama,” Doji said with a slight bow. “I have heard,” she said, turning back to Kakita, “that you are wise and knowledgeable as well as apt with a blade. I would make a request of my betrothed if we are to be married, a contest to prove the worth of my brother’s champion.”
“How intriguing,” Hantei said, smiling broadly. “I approve. I can deny Doji nothing.”
Kakita felt his heart soar. She would agree! “Anything you wish, my lady.”
Doji’s smile grew mischievous. “I have three requests to ask of you.”
“Three requests,” Kakita growled bitterly. “She may as well have asked me to move the sun, moon, and stars from their place in the Heavens.” He sat heavily on a rock overlooking the sea. The demands his bride-to-be had made of him were the type of riddles that wise men contemplated for decades without any hope of resolution. And while Kakita considered himself many things, a wise man was not one of them. Bring the dead to life? Measure the width of the world? Show her a vision? How was he to fulfil such requests?
In frustration, Kakita hurled a stone into the sea. The distant splash was hardly satisfying. He considered trying to hurl the stone on which he sat over the cliff’s edge, with himself on it. He had traveled to this fishing village out of desperation, for he had found nothing in his travels so far. When he described his quest to the villagers, they advised him to consult an old wise woman said to have the gift of foresight. Supposedly she lived by the sea, but thus far Kakita had had no success in locating her. The villagers had seemed unwilling or unable to provide exact directions. Perhaps she was merely another myth to chase fruitlessly.
“Perhaps you are simply not looking in the proper place.”
Kakita was on his feet in less than a second, his blade drawn and at the ready. A young man in fisherman’s clothing stood nearby, his hands folded neatly in his sleeves. How he had approached so silently, Kakita could not imagine. “I do not mean you harm, Kakita-sama,” the young man said. “I was sent by my mother to find you. I am Torikago, son of the wise Yasuki. Will you accompany me?” The young man gestured to a cliff in the distance.
Kakita squinted into the sunset. Atop the cliff was a small hut that he had mistaken for a rock outcropping when he first arrived. Likely he was not the first to make such a mistake. Perhaps that was how the mysterious Yasuki remained hidden from those who sought her wisdom. He sheathed his blade. “I will accompany you, Torikago-san. You have my thanks for your guidance.”
Torikago smiled. “It is my pleasure, Kakita-sama. Or rather, it will be.”
For perhaps the second time in his life, Kakita found that he was nervous. It was an absurd sensation, and one he found that he did not care for. He had always been blessed with certainty, never questioning that his every action would be correct. Doubt was unfamiliar, and he hated it.
“Relax, brother,” Kiyamori told him. “You have prepared for everything. How could she resist you?”
Kakita drew a deep breath. “She is a god,” he replied. “How could she not?” His twin sister had always been the optimistic one in the family.
“She was a god,” Kiyamori replied. “She is mortal now, and I assure you she is a woman like any other.” She glanced over her shoulder to the waiting Torikago. “And if you do not win her heart, then I will have no reason to go through with my marriage.” She leaned in close and smiled coyly. “So do try to do your best, brother.”
Chuckling, Kakita hefted his travel sack and drew a deep breath. With a quick prayer to the Fortunes, he stepped through the doorway into the court chamber of the Emperor’s palace.
The crowd was larger than he had expected. The Emperor was there, of course, along with Lady Doji and many members of her personal entourage, as well as representatives from many other clans. “Kakita-san,” the Emperor said with a smile. “I am glad to see you returned safely from your travels. I trust you were successful?”
“I was, my lord,” Kakita responded. There was a murmur throughout the crowd as they noted the rough traveler’s clothes that Kakita wore, along with the heavy sack that hung at his hip. Lady Doji casually opened her fan to conceal her face. Kakita turned to face his bride-to-be. “My lady, the first of your requests was to bring the dead to life. I found a piece of driftwood upon the seashore, torn long ago from the tree that bore it. From that dead wood, I carved this.” He drew a small stringed instrument from his bag, one that Yasuki had devised and taught him to play. He played a brief piece of music, hauntingly beautiful and inspiring. When he was finished, he offered the biwa to his bride. “I hope that I am not arrogant in believing this wood has returned to life for you, my lady.”
A corner of the Emperor’s mouth quirked upward, and he nodded in approval at his Champion.
Kakita turned, addressing the crowd along with Doji. “Your second request was that I tell you how wide the world is, and how long it might take to walk across it. From only a moment of your company, I learned that the secret is in companionship, for that is the true measure of any journey.” He smiled. “If I were sufficiently blessed as to consider your mother Amaterasu my companion, then I might cross the span of the world in a single afternoon.”
Behind Doji, Hantei concealed another smile by stroking his chin thoughtfully, but Kakita could see the laughter in his eyes. Was he imagining it, or was Doji blushing behind her fan? He could only hope. “Your final request was both the most difficult and the most fulfilling. You asked for a vision of peerless beauty. I struggled with your request for some time before I realized what I sought was easily found. And thus I have retrieved it for you.” He reached again into his furoshiki and withdrew something, hiding it in his cupped hands. He held it forward to show it to Doji, who leaned forward eagerly to inspect the treasure.
In his hands, Kakita held a small golden mirror that reflected Doji’s own image at her.
The Emperor stood and spread his arms wide. “The wedding of Doji and Kakita shall take place at once. Make ready for the festivities, my friends.” He smiled at the couple. “This shall be an occasion to be remembered always.”
Though the Emperor’s words filled Kakita with pride, it was nothing compared to what he felt when he looked into Doji’s sky blue eyes and saw his love for her returned at last.