❯ To Live Rightly – To Live rightly ( Chapter 1 )
TO LIVE RIGHTLY
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to either the Basilisk manga, anime, or the original novel by Futaroh Yamada. I’m just a fan who wanted to show my respect and appreciation for what’s truly one of the greatest anime titles ever made.)
On both sides of the Tokaido Trail, the tall grass rocked and swayed as the wind howled across the empty field. Dusk had barely arrived but the skies had already blackened from the clouds which had hung unmoving in the sky for over a week. Most travelers would have hastened their pace in hopes of avoiding the storm. Takuan Soho on the other hand wasn’t most travelers. With one hand on his sakujo staff and the other on his conical straw hat, he plodded his way with the same pace he had set off from Sunpu. After all, one could never avoid a storm but merely wait it out until it had passed. Besides, a sopping wet priest was the one person no innkeeper would turn down hospitality to. Not if he wanted to keep in good standing with Heaven at least.
What a strange storm, he thought with a glance skyward. No thunder and the wind sounds more like a wail than a roar. Locking his staff in the inner notch of his arm, Takuan reached into his robes to make sure the scroll was still secured against his chest. When Hattori Hanzo had first summoned him the itinerant monk had come without delay. The head of the Shogun’s intelligence had long been an ally in Takuan’s fundraising for the country’s Zen temples and he was more than happy to do whatever Hanzo-dono requested of him. After being briefed on the whole unfortunate affair, Takuan had said a brief sutra along the river bank to speed the young pair on their way and promptly set out on the Tokaido trail toward their home villages.
As a sudden gust of wind slapped him in the face and almost knocked his hat off, Takuan set his staff into the ground for balance and continued on his way. Upon turning a fork in the road, the town of Chiriyu finally came into view as well as a body lying in his path. A victim of bandits most likely judging from the multiple stab wounds in its back. Closer inspection however revealed that the man’s face had been completely obliterated, the blood from which had flowed down and stained the earth around him a reddish black. That’s right, he remembered. From what Hanzo-sama and Kyohachiro told me, this was the site of one of their battles. With a sling of his shoulder, Takuan set his travel pack onto the ground and pulled out a hand trowel with which he began to dig along the trail’s edge. The work went quickly as the passing rainstorms had softened the earth but Takuan still managed to work up a sweat from his labors. When he was satisfied with the trench’s depth, Takuan set down the trowel and trudged his way back to the corpse’s side. The rain had just begun fall when he seized the man’s shoulders and dragged him across the ground to lay with as much dignity as he could muster into the shallow grave. After all, even a ninja didn’t deserve to lie rotting and forgotten on the side of the road like so much refuge
“Rest now friend,” Takuan said as he buried the dead warrior. “Your war is over. Hopefully now you will find the peace you were denied in life.” After reciting another sutra, one he would undeniably say many times before his journey was complete; Takuan removed his hat to allow the rain to wash the sweat from his brow and the mud from his hands when he saw a second body laying not more than ten steps beyond the first. This one was of a young man barely older than twenty. His head was bound in black bandages that completely covered the top half of his face and he was lying half buried in the earth. What a regrettable circumstance, the monk thought. So focused they were on slaying their enemies that they neglected to properly care for their own fallen. Takuan advanced toward his next burial and kneeled down when he noticed something peculiar. The dirt around the boy’s torso was pushed outward as if he had popped out of the earth like a young sapling. On a cautious suspicion, Takuan reached his fingers forward and pressed them against the young man’s neck. It’s very weak, he thought, but he has a pulse. By the grace or malice of Heaven, the youth had not only survived whatever technique his opponents had used on him but had even managed to dig his way free of where his comrades buried him. He wouldn’t be along the living for long however unless Takuan was able to find proper care for him. Dropping his trowel, he seized the boy by the chest and slowly dragged him from the earth’s grip. Takuan then laid the youth down on the rain drenched trail and quickly re-gathered his travel pack before returning to his charge’s side.
“Well then,” he said to his unresponsive companion, “what say we come in out of the rain.” Takuan was not a large man; in fact even some women were taller than him. Regardless he was stout and the rigors of constant travel had toughened him enough to carry any burden entrusted to him. Leaning on his sakujo for support, Takuan hefted the lone survivor of the ninja war over his shoulders and staggered the remaining half mile to Chiriyu where hopefully some aid could be obtained.
For Chikuma Koshirou, hell was the inability to do or change anything no matter how strong his desire. He first learned of hell when that bastard Gennosuke destroyed his eyes as Oboro-sama attempted to stop them. She could have been killed, Koshirou later thought. She only wanted us to stop fighting but he didn’t even care what happened to her. The feeling continued to fester as he and his comrades chased after the Kouga on Tenzen-sama’s orders across the sea to intercept them before they reached Sunpu. Gennosuke spoke of peace but once the no-hostilities pact was relinquished he didn’t hesitate to send his assassin to kill Oboro-sama. But the torture he had experienced was a mere shadow to what awaited him at Chiriyu where the Kouga tricked him into thinking that Oboro-sama had been killed. The poison forced into his lungs by the Kouga who impersonated his comrade Akeginu had paralyzed his body, leaving him unable to speak when the real Akeginu and Oboro-sama finally arrived. Akeginu! he tried to scream. Oboro-sama! Run! Get Away! The Kouga are here! Unable to prove otherwise as they buried him alive, Koshirou felt himself falling deeper into the smothering darkness as a thousand images of his princess lying dead and broken plagued his every moment. And standing above her was Gennosuke, the man who she loved more than life itself but now showed neither sorrow nor regret of how he had betrayed her. No! You’ve already caused my princess enough pain! I won’t let you take her life as well! With nothing more than rage and desperation to guide him, Koshirou somehow found the strength to break free of the netherealm’s grip and back into the world of the living. But by then, Oboro-sama and Akeginu were both gone and his strength spent to where he could do no more than collapse onto the cold and unforgiving ground. Oboro-sama, Koshirou pleaded. Oboro-sama please don’t go. Succumbing to the poison and his own exhaustion, Koushiro felt himself fade and vanish into nothingness until something hot and bitter poured down his throat. With a sputtering gasp, Koshirou forced himself awake and had just attempted to rise when a hand placed itself on his chest. His head and stomach were both twisted into tangled knots and despite the cold sweat that soaked his clothes, Koshirou’s entire body seemed to burning from the inside.
“Easy now boy. You’ve been though a great deal and need to conserve your strength.” The voice was rough and coarse with age and Koshirou guessed that its owner was someone in their 4th decade.
“Where am I?” he asked. “And who are you?” The ground beneath him felt too hard to be mere dirt and overhead Koshirou could hear rain falling on wooden planks. The incessant pounding made his head spin even faster and Koshirou had to fight to retain his consciousness. But of even greater concern was his unknown visitor. Despite the lack of apparent malice in the stranger’s voice, Koshirou had been tricked too many times in the past few days to allow anyone to approach him without knowing for certain they were one of his clan. Ready to strike if this was yet another Kouga trap, Koshirou reached for his scythe and was shocked to find it missing.
“Calm yourself,” the voice continued. “You’re in an inn at Chiriyu. I found you on the Tokaido trail just outside the village and brought you here for proper care. Now, tell me your name?” Koshirou was silent as he regarded the man’s answer with suspicion. There was a strong chance that this was another Kouga trap, most likely an attempt to interrogate him into revealing Oboro-sama’s location. But if it was then why bring him to a public place where they where they were bound to attract unwanted attention? Of course his blindness left Koshirou unable to verify if they actually were in Chiriyu but neither could he ignore that his hands and legs were unrestrained, leaving him free to lash out if he felt himself threatened.
“It’s Koshirou,” he finally answered. “Chikuma Koshirou.” If it was a trap then at the very least he’d be able to give the Kouga false information and grant Oboro-sama time to escape.
“Well Chikuma Koshirou, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m called Takuan. Takuan Soho.”
“Takuan Soho?” Koshirou repeated. “I’ve heard of you from the priest at Aekuni Shrine. He says that you’re a lunatic who denounces the Shogun’s policies.”
“Not all of them,” Takuan corrected. “Just when he sticks his nose in temple matters. Now drink up. You’ve been poisoned but I’ve managed to brew a suitable antidote. Be thankful that the local shrine has a decently stocked herb garden for otherwise you’d be dead by now.” A cup was placed against his lips and Koshirou cautiously accepted the hot and bitter fluid it contained and almost immediately felt his nausea and fever fading away. “It seems like you’ll need more dry clothes. I’ll see if the Innkeeper has anything else he can lend you.”
“Don’t bother,” Koshirou replied as he attempted to stand. He had to get back to Oboro-sama as quickly as possible. The threat of a Kouga attack was bad enough but even worse was the threat posed by Tenzen. Other than old Ogen-dono, Koshirou was the only person in Iga who knew just what sort of actions his sensei was capable of. He hadn’t been fooled for a moment when Tenzen claimed his conduct on the boat was a ploy to draw out the Kouga hiding among them. Following the Iga’s arrival at Chiriyu, Koshirou had stayed close to Tenzen not only to ensure he didn’t attempt to assault Oboro-sama again; but also to wait for the last of the Kouga to be eliminated whereupon he would use his vortex technique to butcher Tenzen to the point that not even he would be able to recover. “Tell me are there two women and a man staying at this inn? One of the women would be blind while the other…”
“You mean the other members of the Iga ten do you not?” Takuan interrupted, turning Koshirou silent with surprise. How could this priest know anything about either them or the ninja war?
“Yes,” he cautiously replied. “How do you know of us?”
“I was informed of the situation by Hattori Hanzo-dono,” Takuan explained. “The war came to its end while you were poisoned and I was sent on behalf of Hanzo-dono to deliver his edict to both your clans.”
“The war is over?” Koshirou asked as a strange sense of foreboding began to grow. “What about Oboro-sama and the others? Are they alright?” When Takuan didn’t answer, Koshirou’s dread only intensified. “Priest where is Oboro-sama?”
“I’m sorry Koshirou,” Takuan finally answered. “But your comrades are all dead, including the Iga princess. You are the only member of Iga’s elite ninja to have survived.” In an instant, Koshirou felt his body turn to ice while the world around him seemed to fade away save for the rain falling outside.
“It can’t be,” he whispered. “It’s not possible. This…it’s another trick by the Kouga.” Yes, that was what it was. He had fallen for it once before but that was only because he was still on edge from fighting Muroga Hyouma. Akeginu would never abandon Oboro-sama. And Tenzen…Tenzen was immortal. There was no way that the Kouga would be able to kill him. Neither would he allow Oboro-sama to die. She was too valuable to his ambitions for him to allow it.
“Koshirou,” Takuan said as a hand was placed on his shoulder, “the fighting is over. Hanzo-dono has reinstated the treaty between your two clans. I wish I was deceiving you, but I’m not. You are the only one left.” The monk’s voice was full of regret and the bluntness of his tone told Koshirou it was no deception and that this time, Oboro-sama was truly dead. We lost! his mind screamed as his body began to shake uncontrollably. They’re dead! Akeginu! Tenzen! My princess! My princess! My princess!
“No,” Koshirou muttered as his gripped his head with both hands. “No, no, no, NO!” Outside, the air cracked with the sound of thunder as the rain began to thrash and pound the inn’s roof.
“Koshirou I understand that you’re in pain,” Takuan continued. “But you must listen to me. Your princess…”
“How?” Koshirou interrupted. “How did Oboro-sama die?”
“Koshirou…” but before the priest could continue, Koshirou slapped away his arm and seized him by the hem of his robe.
“She, she was ordered to fight Gennosuke of the Kouga,” Takuan stammered. “At the time, the two of them were the last known survivors of the war and…”
“Gennosuke!” Koshirou snarled. “You bastard! I’ll get you for this! You and every stinking man, woman, and child in Kouga! I’ll kill you ALL!” Re-strengthened by his rage, Koshirou shoved Takuan aside and leapt to his feet. With his hands outstretched he frantically searched for a doorway or even a window through which he could escape when he felt himself seized from behind.
“Koshirou calm yourself!” Takuan ordered. “You don’t understand what happened!”
“Let me go!” Koshirou yelled. “He has to die! I have to kill him! Him and his entire filthy clan! Damn you get off of me!” In desperation, Koshirou rapidly began to suck in air and successfully created a vortex that struck a nearby wall and filled the room with the sound of splintered wood. The unexpected phenomenon surprised Takuan into releasing him and Koshirou stumbled towards where he had heard his technique land when something hard struck him from behind and sent him falling back into the void. When he awoke, Koshirou attempted to move but found his feet and hands had been bound behind him while a strip of cloth had been tied around his mouth, preventing him from creating another vortex. The floor creaked as someone kneeled next to him and Koshirou angrily thrashed against his restraints.
“I apologize,” Takuan remarked, “but fools rarely listen to reason unless you force them too.” Seizing Koshirou by the shoulders, Takuan hefted him like a bale of rice and set him against a wall. “Now then, you and I need to talk but not unless you promise to be civil. I don’t know how you did that, but the damage you inflicted to our room was enough that the innkeeper nearly threw us both out into the rain. I had to compensate him with some of the alms I’ve collected, money which could have bought a roadside shrine a new bell or repaired the roof of a rundown temple. In fact, before I take off your gag, I want you to swear on the memory of your princess that you’ll behave. Anything else I doubt would have any value to you.” Koshirou growled from deep in his throat but he nodded and felt the cloth pulled from around his mouth.
“How dare you!” he sneered. “This is OUR war and an outsider like you has no right to stop me!”
“Oh really?” Takuan replied. “I suppose you weren’t listening when I said that Hattori Hanzo reinstated the no-hostilities pact between your clan and the Kouga. Even if you were able to make it to Manjidani, attacked Gennosuke, and even managed to be victorious-all of which I highly doubt in your current condition-your actions would be in direct defiance of Hanzo-dono who wouldn’t hesitate to send every samurai at his disposal to track you down and bring him your head.”
“I don’t care! This is no longer a matter between Kouga and Iga, it’s between me and him! Even if I can’t see I’ll hunt down that bastard Gennosuke no matter where he hides and make him suffer as much as he made Oboro-sama suffer.”
“And just what did he do to her that was so terrible? From what Hanzo-dono told me, your two clans have been enemies for centuries. In a battle, death is expected of all involved regardless of their rank or position. Is it really so hard to accept that your princess was killed in battle?” The monk’s condescending tone was how one spoke to a sulking child and Koshirou grit his teeth in frustration.
“Don’t act as if your know everything monk,” he answered. “Someone from outside our clan can’t possibly understand us or how we’ve suffered.”
“I suppose you’re right I can’t,” Takuan admitted. “So tell me about it then.”
“Why do you care?”
“Curiosity, I suppose. Hanzo-dono informed me of the situation when he assigned me to deliver his edict to both your clans but there was much he didn’t know. Anything you could tell me would be of great help in my mission for him.” Koshirou deeply resented how the monk was forcing him to explain himself, but a part of him began to hope that maybe if he did then Takuan could use whatever influence he had with the Hattori to make them side with the Iga.
“Oboro-sama and Gennosuke were engaged to be married,” he finally explained. “It was arranged between them by the 2nd Hattori Hanzo when they were both children at the request of their grandparents. Many in our clan weren’t happy with the thought of our princess marrying a Kouga, especially when it became apparent that Oboro-sama had fallen in love with him.” For a moment, Koshirou ceased talking and began to shake with rage as he remembered the night the Kouga had invaded Tsubagakure to inform Gennosuke of the truce’s cancelation and how the last thing he saw before his eyes were destroyed was his princess tearfully pleading him not to kill the Kouga leader. “Oboro-sama was kind, she was gentle, and she never mastered any ninjutsu or fighting technique in her entire life. When the rest of Iga learned of the truce’s cancelation, we kept it from her of out of fear for what she might do. When it was finally revealed to her, Oboro-sama was unable to overcome her feelings for Gennosuke so she chose to disable her abilities rather than face him in battle.”
“Interesting,” Takuan replied. “I can’t imagine your comrades were too happy with that.”
“They weren’t,” Koshirou continued. “Myself and another; Akeginu; we were the only ones who understood just how deeply Oboro-sama’s pain ran. But Gennosuke… he didn’t even care. He always spoke of peace between our clans and bringing Kouga and Iga together as one. But once the truce was lifted he didn’t hesitate to turn his back on Oboro-sama even as she begged for him not to leave her. He even allowed his men to seek out and kill her. She loved him so much and he repaid her with betrayal!” As he raged, Koshirou bit into his lip and a line of blood fell down his chin.
“I see,” Takuan hummed as he shifted across the floor. “I had some idea as to what sort of a person this Gennosuke was from what Hanzo-dono told me. Still, I had no idea just how unfortunate a person he was.”
“UNFORTUNATE!” Koshirou screamed. “UNFORTUNATE! HE BETRAYED OBORO-SAMA! HE CAST HER ASIDE AND DIDN’T EVEN OFFER HER A WORD OF REGRET! THERE’S NOTHING UNFORTUNATE ABOUT HIM OR WHAT HE DID!”
“You’re wrong,” Takuan continued. “When he learned of the treaty’s cancelation, I can only imagine how much Gennosuke suffered when he realized his hopes of bringing peace to Kouga and Iga were in all likelihood lost forever. That suffering was only compounded when his duty to protect his clan clashed with his affection for Oboro. To know that the one he loved was in pain, that he was the cause of her anguish, and that there was no way he could go to Oboro’s side to comfort her must have been unbearable; especially as the number of the slain in both clans continued to rise. As the Kouga’s leader, I suppose that he probably had to bear it all without showing it lest he lose face before his comrades. Oboro-sama may have suffered greatly for his actions but so did Gennosuke. That’s why he’s unfortunate.” For several moments, Koshirou was unable to speak as everything he had believed threatened to come crashing down around him. Is it true, he wondered. Did Gennosuke really care about Oboro-sama after all?
“Even if he did feel regret for what he did,” Koshirou finally decided, “it doesn’t change a thing that’s happened. He knew as well as I do that Oboro-Sama was helpless in a fight but when the time came he murdered her any…”
“You’re wrong,” Takuan interrupted.
“What was that?”
“I said that Oboro died during her fight with Gennosuke, but I never said that he killed her.”
“What are trying to say monk?”
“When they stood facing each other on the banks of the River Abe,” Takuan explained, “Gennosuke was suffering from several wounds incurred when he fought your comrade Tenzen. Not only that, he was temporarily blind and suffering from poison of some sort. I can’t say for sure whether he was unwilling to fight Oboro or if his condition left him unable to. Nevertheless, when ordered to begin Gennosuke kept his sword lowered while Oboro brought up the blade loaned to her by Hanzo-dono’s son Kyohachiro and plunged it into her own heart instead. It was then that Gennosuke regained his sight and he saw Oboro lying dead before him.” The monk sighed as he poured something into a cup and swallowed it. “By the time he was able to see her again it was too late.”
“But don’t you see?” Koshirou asked. “That only proves he deserves death! The Kouga didn’t win this war! Gennosuke only survived because Oboro-sama was blinded by her love to see him for what he truly…”
“I’m not finished!” Takuan roared, startling Koshirou speechless. “When Gennosuke saw Oboro lying dead before him, he cradled her body and wept like a child. He then wrote that the last person to record in the battle scroll was Oboro of Iga and sent the scroll to be delivered to former Shogun Ieyasu before carrying Oboro into the river where he stabbed himself and drifted away beside her.” In an instant, Koshirou’s anger evaporated and he felt as if the ground beneath him had been yanked away to leave him dangling over a bottomless precipice.
“That…that can’t be,” he said. “It’s impossible. Why would he…how do you even know any of this?”
“Their fight was witnessed by Hattori Hanzo,” Takuan continued. “And he later relayed the information to me when I met with him. I know Hanzo-dono and he is one of the most honest men I have ever met. There wouldn’t even be a reason for him to lie in this situation.” The monk paused briefly and Koshirou heard Takuan take another sip of whatever he was drinking. “But I know other things too Koshirou. While you and your comrades were fighting the Kouga, Hanzo-dono had his men monitor the battles from afar. He also told me of how the Iga tricked Gennosuke into entering Tsubagakure, how the one called Tenzen burned the Kouga’s copy of the battle scroll, and how he led four of the Iga on a surprise assault on Manjidani. I believe you were one of them were you not? Regardless of whatever actions the Kouga committed, the Iga were the ones who drew first blood in this fight.”
“But we had no choice!” Koshirou replied. “If the Kouga learned of the treaty’s cancelation first then they would have attacked us instead. We had to strike first or else we would have been the ones to die!”
“Even though it meant deceiving your princess?” Takuan asked. “You say Gennosuke betrayed and abandoned Oboro. But you yourself admitted that you and your comrades kept the truth of the matter hidden from her. How do you think that made her feel to know that her own kin had used and manipulated her in order to kill the one she loved? You claimed that even if he suffered for his actions, Gennosuke deserved it because it was his choice. By that logic Koshirou, you and your clan also deserve the suffering that you received. You chose to fight the Kouga, to deceive Oboro, and the result cost both your clans dearly. If you had chosen not to fight and instead attempted to seek out another solution, then perhaps a good deal of death and sorrow could have been avoided. So if you truly wish to blame someone for the death of your princess Koshirou, look no further than yourself.” Koshirou wanted to shout out in defiance that Takuan was wrong but his voice froze in his throat. “Now then,” Takuan added as the wood creaked beneath him. “Why don’t you think on that for a moment while I get some more sake.” The floor echoed with Takuan’s departing footfalls and Koshirou felt himself slipping closer towards the edge. He’s wrong, he thought in defiance. I’m not responsible. Gennosuke was the one who abandoned her.
But he had betrayed and lied to her.
Everything I did was to protect Oboro-sama.
And she still died.
It wasn’t my fault.
He had betrayed her
No, she was the most precious thing in my entire life! I’d never do anything to hurt her!
So he tried to kill Gennosuke because she loved a Kouga instead.
That’s a lie!
That was why he almost allowed Tenzen to rape her.
No! he shouted to himself as the memory of Oboro’s terrified screams suddenly awoke.
“KOSHIROU! NOOOO! KOSHIROU! KOSHIROU!”
Koshirou’s breath became more ragged as he felt himself being stretched and torn into a thousand directions until finally; he slipped and tumbled over into the abyss. With a cry of despair and despite the bonds Takuan had left him in, Koushirou hurled his body forward and slammed his forehead into the floor. The injuries inflicted to his eyes reopened and blood trickled from beneath his bandages along with a fresh wound above the bridge of his nose. Koshirou raised his head and screamed again as he threw himself toward death’s release when someone caught his forehead and pulled him into a restraining embrace.
“Koshirou stop it!” Takuan ordered. “This won’t change anything!”
“Let me go!” Koshirou shouted. “Oboro-sama! She needs me! I can’t leave her alone!”
“And so you intend to betray her again?” Takuan inquired. Koshirou ceased struggling as a vision of Oboro suddenly appeared before him. She was standing before him in the rain and tears were flowing down her lovely face. “Oboro killed herself so that no one else in either clan would have to die in your foolish war. And here you are about to throw her sacrifice away because you can’t bear the guilt. Are you really so selfish Koshirou that you’d use her as a reason to turn away from the life she gave back to you?” I can’t even die? Koshirou asked himself. Not even if it’s to atone for what I’ve done? As if in answer, a thousand images of his princess assaulted Koshirou and each one of them stared at him with eyes spilling over with betrayal.
“Oboro…sama,” Koshirou whispered as he collapsed into the monk’s grip. Bloodied tears flowed down his face and Takuan silently pressed his hand against Koshirou’s face to reseal his seeping wounds. “Oboro-sama,” Koshirou wailed. “Oboro-sama.”
With the dawn, the rain came to a pause long enough for Takuan to resume his journey to the Kouga-Iga valley along with Koshirou. One of the other guests at the inn turned out to be a merchant carting his wares to the port of Miyu and Takuan convinced him to grant them transport in exchange for a good luck blessing. But while the poison had been purged from Koshirou’s body, the grip his anguish held on him remained strong and he spent the entire trip silently carving a wooden statue from a piece of wood he had taken from the Chiriyu inn. On occasion, Takuan would glance over at his companion and marvel as he moved the short-bladed knife across the block’s surface with little more than his sense of touch to guide him. Initially Takuan was hesitant to return the blade which he had found secured in Koshirou’s ninja uniform for fear the boy would do himself harm. But Koshirou had once again sworn on his Princess’s memory and Takuan honored his request. Still he couldn’t help but notice that while Koshirou’s hand was certainly skilled, his hand was slow and his motions seemed weighted down by an invisible restraint.
At dusk the two finally arrived at the seaside town of Miyu where Takuan planned to negotiate passage onboard a ship to take them across the Shichiri passage to Kuwanna. After that, two more days of travel would bring them to the Kouga-Iga valley were Takuan would deliver the results of the ninja war to the villages of Tsubagakure and Manjidani. But no sooner had they set foot on the docks when an unforeseen obstacle appeared in the form of a rock that sailed through the air and bounced off of Koshirou’s temple, sending him sprawling to the pier’s surface.
“You bastard!” someone screamed. “You’re ours now!” Takuan had barely enough time to help Koshirou to his feet when a trio of men wielding clubs and iron harpoons jumped off from a nearby boat and stormed towards them.
“Stop this!” Takuan ordered as he placed himself between Koshirou and the mob. “This man is no threat to you so why do you attack him!”
“Out of the way priest!” the lead sailor snarled. “If you had any idea what this man did you’d be joining us!”
“I highly doubt that,” Takuan answered. “Regardless of what he may or may not have done before he and I crossed paths I’m not so much a coward that I’d attack someone who couldn’t even see.” The lead sailor flushed in anger and he stepped forward. Despite standing a full head taller than Takuan and being built like a bear, the monk held his ground and the people around them stopped to see whether a seemingly mismatched fight was about to break out before them.
“Listen here priest,” he continued. “We gave that man and his companions free passage aboard our ship because they said it was a matter of life and death. But no sooner were we away from port that a fight broke out between them and a stowaway. During the fight, one of his friends killed another passenger before the stowaway threw him overboard. When the stowaway retreated, his other companion deliberately murdered one of our friends and then used a young boy as a shield. The child survived only when his father jumped between his son and the stowaway, giving up his own life in the process. I’ll never forget the way that child cried so long as I live. As their accomplice, I’d say he bears some of the responsibility don’t you?” Takuan looked over his shoulder and saw that Koshirou’s head was lowered in shame.
“An accomplice perhaps,” Takuan admitted. “But from what you’re telling me it was the stowaway who killed that boy’s father, not him. However if you truly feel that death is the only means to make this tragedy right, then I offer you mine in place of his.” Takuan spread his arms in welcome of the sailor’s wrath and a gasp arose from the surrounding spectators. The sailors, aware of what might happen if they struck down an unarmed priest in broad daylight, exchanged glances before turning in retreat.
“You got lucky boy,” one of them snarled. Takuan sighed in relief and turned back to check on Koshirou who now seemed to be searching his robes for something. By the ninja’s foot, Takuan noticed the wooden figurine lying face down on the pier’s platform.
“It’s right behind you and to your left.” Koshirou muttered a thanks and reached down to retrieve his carving when something flew past Takuan to embed itself in the dock. The harpoon missed Koshirou’s hand by a hair’s breath but the figurine wasn’t so lucky. The projectile had cleaved it in half neatly through the waist while the impact sent the bottom half plunging over the edge of the dock and into the bay.
“Sorry, I lost my grip.” Takuan turned and glared at the sailors who returned to their ship laughing uproariously at their cruelty. The crowd, which had uttered a startled cry when the harpoon was thrown, dispersed as quickly as it gathered once the people realized the scene was over; leaving Takuan standing over Koshirou who cradled the splintered figurine in his hands.
“Come on,” Takuan said as he helped Koshirou to his feet. “Let’s find someplace to spend the night. We’ll set off for Kuwanna in the morning.” With Koshirou in tow, Takuan led him away from the dock and down Miyu’s central road. He didn’t want to take a chance of staying at any of the shipyard district’s inns while those sailors were still in port.
With the breaking of the dawn, Takuan saw to his relief that the ship carrying the sailors who had attacked them had already set off across the bay. Let’s hope we don’t run into any others that these ninjas had the carelessness to injure, he thought. To be safe, Takuan left Koshirou waiting at a sweet shop across from the pier while he sought out their passage.
“Well,” he announced on his return. “I found a ship that will take us across the Shichiri passage. It won’t be leaving however for another hour or two so why don’t we take a moment to enjoy the day.” From where he sat, Koshirou raised his bandaged head and shook it.
“No thank you. I think I’d rather just wait here if you don’t mind.” In his hand, Koshirou was still holding on to remains of the wooden statue which he stroked and caressed like an infant.
“May I see that for a moment?” Takuan asked. Koshirou startled for a moment and clenched both hands around the statue. “I promise you I won’t harm it.” Although still hesitant, Koshirou released the figurine into Takuan’s outstretched hand. While at first glance the carving seemed little more than any other wooden doll, closer examination revealed just how incredibly detailed it was. Cut in the shape of a young woman, the figure’s hair draped down her back where it was tied in place by a scarf which Koshirou had even notched a pattern onto. Her features were soft and silky with large, soulful eyes; bestowing on her an air of almost tangible gentleness and innocence. Her expression however was what struck Takuan the most. The eyes were overflowing with despair while her face was in a striking display of pain and betrayal. “Is this Oboro?” Koshirou sharply inhaled and clenched his jaw as he nodded in answer. “I knew you were capable from the way you handled your knife despite being blind,” Takuan consented. “But I never imagined even one with sight could create something that almost seems alive.” Takuan returned the figurine to Koshirou who gently traced his finger along its face.
“Oboro-sama always loved to watch me carve,” he admitted. “Ever since we were both children, she would sit for hours while I cut and notched the wood. She even once said I was the greatest of all the Iga because of it.”
“I can see why,” Takuan said. “Anyone can kill or destroy. But very few people have the power to create. Still, she didn’t always look that way did she? Perhaps it being broken was a blessing in disguise since now you can do one where she’s smiling. Don’t you think she’d be prettier that way?” Koshirou’s body shook with a heaving sigh and he swallowed hard.
“All my life,” he whispered. “All I ever wanted was to be there for my princess. To see her laugh…to offer comfort when she was sad…even if the most she could think of me was her servant.” Ah, Takuan realized. Now we get to the heart of the matter. “But when she pleaded for me not to kill Gennosuke…the expression she gave me was of such deep pain and betrayal that I barely even recognized her. It continues to haunt me and now…I can’t remember her any other way.” Koshirou clutched the figure to his chest and bit his lip before raising his head back toward Takuan. “Takuan-sama; when you met with Hanzo-dono; did he say why the no-hostilities pact was lifted? Why were we even fighting at all?” Takuan pursed his lips as he wondered whether or not to answer. From behind Koshirou’s bandages, Takuan could feel the ninja’s sightless eyes boring into him and he decided that he deserved to know the truth.
“A succession dispute had arisen within the Shogunate,” he explained. “Factions had formed among those who favored Hitetada-sama’s eldest son Takechiyo and those who supported his younger son Kunichiyo. As tensions neared a breaking point, the former shogun Ieyasu ordered the pact dissolved and for Kouga and Iga to send ten of their greatest ninja to settle the dispute through a conflict of strength.” Koshirou’s mouth slowly lowered in shock but he didn’t respond. In the distance, a pair of seagulls began squawking over a fish one of the dock workers had dropped on the ground.
“That’s it?” Koshirou finally asked. “My princess suffered and died because Tokugawa can’t keep his own retainers under control?” In Koshirou’s grip, the wooden statue of his princess began to creak as his grip tightened around it. Fearful that he might snap it if not careful, Takuan placed his hand over Koshirou’s to calm him.
“Koshirou listen to me,” Takuan warned. “What happened was a tragedy but you mustn’t allow your anger to consume you again.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Koshirou demanded. “We and the Kouga served Ieyasu and the Hattori without question. And how do they repay us? By throwing us away for no other reason other than ninja are considered more expendable than their fawning samurai! Oboro-sama never even met Ieyasu or the current Hattori Hanzo and still they discarded her as if she were no more than garbage. Explain to me why I should even consider forgiving them for that!”
“Oh I don’t deny that Oboro was an unfortunate person,” Takuan consented. “But despite all she experienced did you ever once hear her say, `I hate the Kouga’ or `I hate Ieyasu and the Hattori’ or even `I hate you my clansmen?’” Koshirou pursed his lips in thought and shook his head.
“And do you know why?’ Takuan asked. “Because she understood that despite the actions that they all committed; the reason they did so was because they were lost in their own misfortune. That she was able to avoid doing so her self speaks greatly of how strong a person she actually was.”
“Misfortune?” Koshirou bitterly laughed. “In case you’ve forgotten Takuan, Oboro-sama was the one who was forced to sacrifice everything for Ieyasu’s game. That hardly makes him unfortunate.”
“Not just Oboro,” Takuan corrected. “Don’t forget about Gennsosuke. He also endured a great deal of misfortune at hands of the former Shogun. Of course, we can’t forget the other twenty ninjas of Kouga and Iga either. All of them lost friends, family, lovers, and finally their own lives. Unable to let go of their ancestor’s grudges, they were blinded that the ones they saw as their enemies were suffering just as they were and that led them to even greater pain. That’s very unfortunate don’t you think?” Koshirou attempted to speak up but Takuan cut him off before the ninja could interrupt him.
“But even those who didn’t directly fight in this war were unfortunate,” Takuan continued. “An obvious example would be those sailors who accosted us yesterday. They lost their friend to your war and that anger continues to poison their souls. If not released, it might cause them to lash out at someone just to find relief and then that person will become unfortunate. Of course we can’t forget the father who died to protect his son. His child will now be forced to make his way alone through the world. In a way that makes him even more unfortunate than his father.” Koshirou’s shoulders slumped in shame but Takuan knew that he still needed to hear more.
“A less obvious person is Hanzo-dono. Despite what you may think of him after all that’s occurred, I know Hanzo-dono and he is neither a heartless man nor is he a stupid one. When he witnessed Oboro and Gennosuke’s duel, he understood completely what they were to each other and the pain they felt. Although he acted on orders from the former Shogun, he will carry the guilt of what he had put them through for the rest of his life. Even Ieyasu is unfortunate. To preserve the greater peace of our land meant that he would have to sacrifice the future of one grandchild to secure the inheritance of the other. Ieyasu is a ruthless man. No one can deny that. But even he would feel regret knowing that his actions would cause the fall of his own grandchild. Yet even before the heir was decided, Ieyasu grandsons were unfortunate. From what Hanzo-dono has told me, both Takechiyo and Kunichiyo had no interest whatsoever in the politics of those who fought over their right to rule as Shogun. Nevertheless, that didn’t protect them both from being poisoned and almost killed by the other’s supporters. Even those who fought over which grandson should inherit the Shogunate are unfortunate. Those in power can never know true peace because of the way they seek and cling so tenaciously to their influence; knowing that a moment’s weakness would cost them what they themselves seized by force or guile; either at the hands of another as ambitious as themselves or those they wronged in pursuit of their power. And now that the heir has been decided one faction has lost and all but the highest members shall most likely be put to death for inciting disorder within the Shogunate.” Takuan sighed and shook his head at the absurdity of it all, granting Koshirou a moment to digest what he had said. “Do you understand now Koshirou? Oboro was unfortunate but she wasn’t the only unfortunate one in this situation. Neither for that matter were you. If this entire affair proves anything, it’s that there truly is no such thing as a fortunate person.” For a long time, Koshirou continued to gently caress the wooden carving of his princess before he raised his unseeing gaze towards Takuan.
“If what you say is true,” Koshirou finally said. “And if everyone is unfortunate; even those who don’t deserve to be like my princess; then why should humans even exist? We’d all be better off dead.” For the first time in his life, Takuan found himself speechless as he realized that perhaps he had been too hard on Koshirou. As misguided as his hatred might have been, without a recipient for it Koshirou had no other reason to live. Takuan hummed in thought and peered to the sky as he wondered what could possibly be said to ease a heart so knotted in despair and anguish. Didn’t Buddha’s disciple Yatala once ask the same question, he realized as he looked back down to Koshirou. I suppose it would do here as well.
“You’re asking the wrong question,” Takuan answered. “It’s not a matter of why humans exist or even if they should. They simply do. Humans are a part of the world and as such are tied to all living things. Whether it be a person, a beast, or even a blade of grass; everything that exists has a role to play in a much larger setting beyond its own life. It doesn’t matter whether a person has been wronged or committed wrongs or even if he suffers more or less than others. All that matters is that he lives rightly?”
“Live rightly?” Koshirou asked. “I failed my clan, my comrades, even my princess. How can I possibly live rightly when I don’t even deserve to live?” Takuan smirked and reached down to grasp Koshirou’s arm
“Come with me,” he explained. “I’ll show you what I mean.”
His hand on Takuan’s shoulder, Koshirou was led through the streets of Miyu. Although his ravaged eyes were unable to see where he was being taken, his other senses had finally started to adapt enough for him to get a vague perception of his surroundings. Judging from the smell of salt spray and the calling of the sea birds, he and Takuan must still be somewhere along the bay’s edge. The one thing that surprised him was how short Takuan-sama actually was. From the way he carried himself, Koshirou had at first imagined him to be an even more imposing figure than Tenzen.
“Watch your step,” Takuan said as he suddenly changed direction left. “There’s a dog dropping right in our path. Just walk a circle. That’s it. Now we just need to find a-ah yes this will do nicely. Now turn to your right and keep going until I tell you to stop.” Koshirou followed his guide’s directions and the crunch of dirt and rock beneath his sandals turned into the creaking of wood. From further beneath him, Koshirou heard the lapping of water against an obstruction of some sort as the tide signaled its slow entry into port. “That’s far enough,” Takuan instructed. “Now Koshirou, do you know where you are?” The most obvious answer was of course a dock, but something told Koshirou that wasn’t the right response.
“The bay,” he finally said.
“That’s right,” Takuan said. “And it truly is a marvelous thing. It existed long before you and I and it will continue to exist long after we meet our end. Even before Miyu was built, this bay was here. It is great, it is beautiful, it gives, and it is appreciated by all those who depend upon it for their livelihood. But most importantly, it doesn’t try to force change on itself or others. It exists exactly as nature intended it to. Despite your misgivings about your current worth Koshirou, you have to potential within you to be as great as this bay. But only if you live rightly, in a way that is natural for you.” Is that what it means to live rightly? Koshirou wondered. Since he was young, Koshirou had been taught that a person’s life was set by Heaven; regardless of what they themselves felt of desired. Rather than futilely struggle against one’s fate, one could only accept their place in life no matter how cruel or heartless Heaven’s will. If what this monk says is right, then does that mean fate is something a person sets for themselves? The idea was a contradiction to everything Koshirou was raised to believe in but he couldn’t deny that it was more agreeable to him.
“Takuan-sama, how close are we to the edge of the dock?”
“Oh I’d say about six paces or so.” Koshirou took his hand from Takuan’s shoulder and carefully took three strides forward. The sea air filled his nostrils and the sounds of the bay assaulted him from all sides. Seabirds screeched and plunged into the surf in pursuit of a meal, fish breached the water’s surface only to fall back into their element, and local fisherman heaved their nets into the waves before hauling them back laden with their fresh flopping catch. In time with the bay; the people of Miyu went about their business. Some loaded cargo off or onto the ships, others sold or haggled for fish and other goods, and at the foot of the dock where he and Takuan stood; a trio of gamblers wagered their money on the throw of a dice. At first, each life seemed separate and unrelated to the others. It was only when he focused on the whole that Koshirou understood that they all interconnected and wove together into a larger more enduring presence. Even the with the absence of one aspect, that whole couldn’t exist and Koshirou finally realized just how small and petty he and his clan had been.
We were so foolish, he thought. The Iga and the Kouga thought that our grudges against each other were all that mattered and that the rest of the world wasn’t worth our concern. Kouga and Iga had isolated themselves from each other and the rest of the world; failing so see that their actions affected the world and the actions of the world affected them. Was it any wonder no one would accept Kouga and Iga as having any value when the clans didn’t offer the same? In that regard, the fate that befell them was entirely of their own doing.
Somewhere amidst the people walking along the port’s edge, Koshirou noticed a young woman laughing. She was joined by a young man and Koshirou wondered if there were other couples like them in Miyu or across the land, young men and women who had hopes and dreams for a happy life together. If the succession dispute wasn’t resolved, would they still have a chance for that happiness. As cruel as Ieyasu’s actions were, if he hadn’t then who knows how many would have suffered and died for the sake of a few people’s ambitions? And even if he could never entirely forgive the former Shogun for what he had done, a portion of Koshirou’s bitterness faded away as he came to the conclusion that Ieyasu-dono could have ordered the clans to declare all out war rather than limiting it to their strongest fighters.
Beneath him, a seabird flapped and landed on the underside of the dock and three tiny voices began to shrill in greeting. The bird must have built a nest in the support rafters and now it returned to feed its chicks with the fish stored in its gullet. Those fish were alive until a few minutes ago, he realized. Although dead, their bodies would feed the fledgling seabirds who would gain the fish’s strength for themselves. It reminded Koshirou of an incident when he and Oboro were children…
… “Oboro-sama,” Koshirou called out. It was getting late and Oboro-sama still hadn’t returned from the woods where she had gone to play. Although she never ventured far from Tsubagakure, she had never stayed out this late and Old Ogen-dono had tasked Koshirou and Akeginu to find and bring her back. “Oboro-sama where are you?” Had something happened to her? Although he was still well within Iga territory, Koshirou wondered if the Kouga had decided to violate the no-hostilities pact and kidnapp her. If they did, Koshirou would have a perfect chance to finally use his technique in battle. Hours of Tenzen-sama’s vigorous and usually unrelenting training would see fruition and Koshirou would prove himself as being more than just a gennin-in training to all who doubted his value to the clan.
As he climbed over a fallen tree, to his relief Koshirou finally saw Oboro-sama in a nearby clearing. As usual, the Iga princess was surrounded by the wild rabbits that swarmed to her side whenever she played in the woods. Her back was turned to him and she was kneeling on the forest floor. Even when he approached her and the rabbits fled for cover, she didn’t even look over her shoulder to acknowledge him. It was so unlike Oboro-sama to ignore him that he actually began to wonder if she had been hurt.
“Oboro-sama?” At the sound of his voice, Oboro-sama finally turned around and Koshirou feared he was right. Her large violet eyes were red from crying and her face was streaked with tears. “Oboro-sama what’s wrong?” Oboro sniffled and wiped her face with the sleeve of her pink kimono.
“Koshirou,” she sobbed, “Hinako…Hinako’s dead.” Koshirou almost asked who she meant until he remembered that Oboro-sama had given names to all the rabbits in this part of the forest. Hinako was one of her favorites, a grey and black spotted female who she had named after the flower patch Oboro-sama had first encountered her in. How she could tell them apart was beyond his understanding but she treated them all as cherished friends. Tenzen-sama had once demanded that Ogen-dono put a stop to it as such behavior was unbecoming for a ninja, especially a future leader of Tsubagakure; but Ogen-dono had overrode him and even banned the Iga from hunting in this part of the forest. “When I called for her she didn’t come. I went looking for her but when I found her she was being bitten by a fox. The fox ran away when I tried to save her…but it was too late. She was already dead.” Oboro-sama’s voice cracked as she buried her face in her hands and began to cry with such torrent that it hurt Koshirou to watch. Glancing over his shoulder, Koshirou saw a freshly laid mound of earth over a recently dug grave before the princess and his anger began to grow.
“Oboro-sama don’t cry.” Koshirou placed his hand on her shoulder and Oboro-sama looked up to him. “And don’t worry. I’ll find that fox and when I do, I’ll make sure he pays for…”
“Koshirou no!” Oboro-sama begged as she leapt to her feet. “Please, don’t hurt the fox.”
“But Oboro-sama he killed Hinako.”
“I know,” Oboro-sama admitted. “And it hurts. But the fox didn’t do it to be mean. He was hungry. Or maybe he had cubs to feed. He can’t be blamed for trying to survive. Besides, Hinako was gentle. She wouldn’t want anyone to suffer because of her.” Koshirou stared at Oboro-sama and wondered how or even why she would want to forgive the fox after being hurt like that. But he decided it was just the way she was.
“All right Oboro-sama,” he replied. “I promise I won’t take any revenge on the fox.” Through her tears, Oboro-sama forced a smile of gratitude and he took her hand. “Now let’s go. Ogen-dono’s worried about you. Let’s go find Akeginu so we can go home.”
A few months later, Koshirou was sharpening his scythes along the verandah of Ogen-dono’s mansion when the princess came running up to him.
“Koshirou!” she gasped. “Come quick! It’s incredible!” Confused and startled by her excitement, Koshirou was nearly dragged by her out of Tsubagakure and into the forest where he eventually found himself in the same clearing where Oboro-sama had buried Hinako. “Do you see?” she asked. “Isn’t it amazing?” Unsure of what she meant, Koshirou followed her line of sight to where a patch of yellow Lilies had spouted.
“Oboro-sama I’m not sure I understand?”
“Don’t you remember Koshirou? That’s where I buried Hinako. And those are the same flowers that she always used to hide in.” Koshirou raised an eyebrow and studied the flower patch a moment longer. While true that Lilies usually grew in places where there was more light; small patches sprouting in the middle of the woods weren’t entirely uncommon. “It’s a gift from Hinako,” the princess stated as she kneeled down and lovingly ran her fingers over the petals. “She’s been reborn as the same flowers she loved so much.” For a moment, Koshirou had his doubts but decided that maybe it was true in a fashion. After all, if cherry blossoms were born from the blood of heroes than who was to say a rabbit’s blood couldn’t grow Lilies.
“Yes,” he admitted. “You’re absolutely right Oboro-sama”…
…Standing on the dock, surrounded by the activity of Miyu’s port, Koshirou wondered how long had it been since he thought of that day. The world is in constant change, he thought. Winter gives way to spring, youth gave way to age, lives end and new lives begin. Life gives way to death and death gives way to life. That in itself was no great revelation. Every child in Iga knew that much. Now however, Koshirou began to wonder if the beginning of one really signaled the end of the other. After all, if an individual life was interconnected with others then it remained in the whole of existence even in death. Maybe life and death weren’t really opposing conditions but actually different states of the same condition. And if that was true did that mean that somewhere, Oboro-sama still existed?
Suddenly, something warm descended upon his face and it almost seemed as if the darkness that claimed his sight was beginning to part. What’s happening, he wondered as a light came into view before him. Wondering if his sight had somehow returned, Koshirou reached up to his face and found that his bandages still covered his eyes as a figure materialized within the light and slowly began to approach him. The figure was small and definitely female in form, and for some reason seemed familiar to him. It was only until after she was close enough for Koshirou to recognize her haunting violet eyes and matching kimono that he knew why.
O…Oboro-sama? The princess continued to approach him and Koshirou fell to his knees in prostration before her. Even when she stood before him, Koshirou dared not meet her gaze again. Oboro-sama…I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I lied to you about the truce’s cancelation. I tried to kill Gennosuke even while you begged me to stop. I knew what Tenzen was planning to do to you but I didn’t even try to stop him until it was almost too late. And now, you’re dead because I failed in my promise to protect you. I’m sorry Oboro-sama. I’m so sorry. Koshirou’s eyes burned with unshed tears but he locked them in. Weeping wouldn’t undo anything and considering all he had done and allowed to happen; the act would be nothing short of an insult to her.
As he lay in disgrace before her, something with the gentleness of a spring breeze caressed Koshirou’s face and he gasped with surprise. As if guided by some external force, Koshirou lifted his head and was stunned to see Oboro-sama kneeling before him, her hand gently stroking his scarred chin. But of even greater shock was the fact that she was smiling at him. All traces of despair had vanished from her beautiful face and her eyes shone upon him with the same warmth and gentleness that Koshirou had once thought he would never see again. Oboro-sama, he wondered. Are you saying that you don’t hate me? Can you actually forgive me after everything I’ve done? Oboro-sama didn’t answer and instead wiped her hand across his eyes before she rose back to her feet. Koshirou watched her stand and noticed another figure standing behind her who bore a striking resemblance to Kouga Gennosuke. And it almost seemed as if he was smiling down on Koshirou as well.
As quickly as they appeared, the two phantoms silently vanished and the darkness returned to claim Koshirou’s sight. But while Oboro-sama’s image had faded, her presence remained. Koshirou felt in wind that caressed his sightless eyes, tasted it in the salty air, and heard it in the voice of every being around him. He knew then that Oboro-sama was in a place where she wouldn’t have to suffer ever again. More importantly, Gennosuke was with her as well. And for the first time in what seemed like years, Koshirou felt himself smile.
“Look at that,” Takuan observed. “The clouds have finally parted.”
“Yes,” Koshirou replied. “I know.”
By the time they returned, the ship Takuan had arranged to carry them across the bay had already commenced the loading of its cargo. Although he hadn’t asked what manner of enlightenment Koshirou had received on the edge of the fishing pier, the sense of relief emanating from the blind ninja almost made him seem like a different person. He still moved with the gait of someone carrying a heavy burden, but Koshirou held his head high and bore it with undeniable strength and dignity.
“What kept you!” one of the sailors yelled. “Hurry up and get on board! We’re leaving in a few minutes!”
“Yes, yes we’re coming!” Takuan called back. “Come on Koshirou. We’ve still got a long journey ahead of us.”
“Takuan-sama wait,” Koshrou said. “You mentioned at Chiryu that Hanzo-dono sent you to deliver a message to both my clan and the Kouga.”
“Yes that’s correct.”
“Will you read it to me? I’d like to know what fate is going to befall us.”
“Well…” Takuan hesitated “…my orders were to deliver the results to both Kouga and Iga simultaneously. But I think you’ve proved yourself ready to hear it.” Reaching into his robes, Takuan retrieved the scroll and undid the string which bound it closed so as to stretch it open.
“The ninja war between Kouga and Iga is over,” he read aloud. “The final two combatants, Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga, faced each other several days ago on the banks of the Abe River. Unfortunately, both were mortally wounded in battle. As Gennosuke succumbed to death first, victory is claimed by Oboro and the Iga. However; upon consideration of the strength and valor displayed in battle by the twenty chosen fighters, granting favor to one clan of such talented ninja would drastically compromise the strength of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Especially considering the continued threat posed by the Toyotomi family and the subversive influence of foreign powers. Therefore, upon the reception of this scroll, the no-hostilities pact between Kouga and Iga is hereby reinstated by the will of the 4th Hattori Hanzo Masahiro. In addition, the spoils promised to the winning clan shall instead by evenly received by both.” As he resealed the scroll, Takuan smiled when he noticed the look of surprise on Koshirou’s face. “I told you, Hanzo-dono is not a cruel man. This is his way of making amends for the suffering he brought upon Gennosuke, Oboro, and all of their comrades.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Koshirou lowered his head in thought before reaching his open hand toward Takuan. “Takuan-sama…give me the scroll. I’ll deliver it to Kouga and Iga.”
“I know Hanzo-dono requested you to deliver it,” he explained. “But ninja have difficulty accepting the word of an outsider regardless of whoever his acquaintances are. But aside from that, the clans need to know everything that has happened. I’ll tell them how they all fought and how they died, the reason for the truce’s cancelation, and the sacrifice made by Gennosuke and Oboro-sama. I’ll show them that our ways have to change and that all of our grudges need to be released. Hopefully then no one in either Kouga or Iga will ever again know the suffering my princess was forced to experience.”
“It won’t be easy,” Takuan warned. “Especially after all that’s occurred.” Koshirou smiled weakly and cast his unseeing eyes toward Heaven.
“I know,” he admitted. “But it’s what Oboro-sama would want. If I truly hope to live rightly then that’s where I need to begin.” Takuan hummed in thought but finally smiled in resignation.
“You’re right. I suppose it would be best for one of their own to tell them.” Takuan placed the scroll in Koshirou’s outstretched hand and then detached the headpiece from his staff. “Take this as well. I know it’s not much of a parting gift, but it’ll help you find your way home.” Koshirou accepted the wooden pole as Takuan placed his hand over Koshirou’s shoulder and walked him over to the gangplank. “And let me give you one final piece of advice. Life is forever changing and all things are ultimately transitory. That includes suffering as well. So live on, endure your pain, and someday happiness will return to you.”
“I’ll try,” Koshirou sighed. “For now that’s all I can do.”
“Hey hurry up!” the sailor yelled. “Get on board or we’ll leave you here!” Takuan sighed and wondered if all sailors were this rude or just the ones at this port.
“Go on then,” he told Koshirou as he slapped him on the back. “Your people are waiting for you.” Koshirou nodded and slowly ascended up the gangplank, his staff tapping its surface to make sure he didn’t walk over the edge as one of the other passengers ran forward to help guide him on board. As the sailors untied the mooring ropes, the ship pulled away from the dock and Takuan watched it depart across the bay until finally the vessel was nothing more than a speck on the horizon. Well then, he decided. Maybe I’ll go visit with Takezo and Otsu and see if Takezo’s made any progress on that manuscript of his.
“Wow mister. Is that your wife? She’s really pretty.” Koshirou turned to where the little girl’s voice came from and smiled. Shortly before the ship departed, Koshirou had asked a deckhand if the ship had any pieces of wood they could spare and received several. As he sat and carved on the outer deck, he was vaguely aware of the other passengers watching him but paid them no mind. In truth he wanted them to see, even if they couldn’t fully understand.
“No,” he answered as she showed her the figure he had just finished. “Actually she’s his.”
“Yeah I guess you’re right. She does look better with him.” The child’s footsteps retreated away from him and Koshirou chuckled to himself. He couldn’t take offense for something that was simple truth. Setting the knife next to where his walking staff lay, he picked up the statue of Oboro that leaned against his thigh and gently caressed its face. The one he carved on the road to Miyu he had thrown away following his vision. Unlike its predecessor, this one captured Oboro-sama’s true gentleness of spirit and was much worthier of her memory. Her peaceful smile imprinted itself onto Koshirou’s touch and he knew that this is how he would always remember her from this day on.
His attention then turned to study the statue of Gennosuke he grasped in his other hand. Without his anger and pain to blind him, Koshirou was able to appreciate the quiet strength and calm that seemed to radiate from his former enemy. I think I know now why I resented you, he realized. It wasn’t just that you had Oboro-sama’s love. You lived your life true to your own beliefs. Something I didn’t have the courage to do until now. In all likelihood, Koshirou knew that Kouga and Iga could never exist as one. But maybe; if he followed Gennosuke’s example and Oboro-sama’s memory; then perhaps he could find a way for the clans to at least learn to live together. He had already decided that after he brought Hanzo-dono’s message to Kouga and Iga, his first step toward reconciliation would be to construct a shrine in honor of the fallen ninja; even if he had to build it by himself. He would place it in the same grotto where Oboro-sama frequently went to meet with Gennosuke and the centerpiece would be the statues he was presently in the midst of creating. That way, even if the Shogunate forgot the ones it sacrificed for its own preservation, their memory would survive in Kouga and Iga as the ones who finally ended centuries of strife so that a true peace could grow and thrive.
As he placed the two figurines so that they lay together in his lap, Koshirou took up his knife and a third block and began to carve the next statue. Little by little the weight of the wood evaporated in his grasp as the person within began to take shape. A slight rubbing with a piece of sharkskin smoothed out its surface and Koshirou traced his hand across its features; satisfied that he had captured the fierce, stern features of his former sensei. You did many vile things Tenzen-sama, Koshirou thought. But even you must have endured great suffering over the course of your long life. As your former student, helping you find peace is the least I can do. While the ship continued its journey across the bay, Koshirou set to work on detailing Tenzen’s body and clothes. The sea was rough and the boat rocked back and forth in the churning waves. But overhead, not a single cloud cast a shadow over Koshirou’s path.