Stephen R. Sobotka Jr.
Both sensei and pupil stood on the wide, long finger of stone jutting out from the face of Mt. Zao, moving through their morning exercises atop a span of moss-covered stones. The smell of loam, mixed with moisture from the morning mists and scents from the trees, filled the air with a natural perfume. Birds in the branches of the trees heralded the rising sun, adding to the splendor of the morning
Dressed in white cotton pants bound tightly around his ankles and waist, the sensei flicked a drop of sweat from his brow, never once breaking the rhythm of his movement as he began 'dragon-catches- pearl'. Standing beside him, similarly dressed save for a band of cloth that kept her chest covered, the pupil mimicked him, effortlessly following the movement into 'crane-moves-clouds-aside'. As one they continued performing the kata, before coming to a resting stance, breathing deeply to relax themselves.
They then faced each other and bowed low. After a moment, the teacher straightened up and beamed at Jiju proudly.
"Excellent. Your form is approaching flawless perfection. You have learned to control without forcing, to move without thinking. That is much improved from when you first came to learn Taich'uan, after training with the castle's guard."
Jiju kept her head down, her braid drooping over one wet shoulder. "I am happy that my sensei is pleased."
The dark-skinned man nodded before clapping his large hands, signaling for her to rise. "It will be our Lady that matters the most in such things. To excel at her wish is reward enough."
The young girl breathed in the crisp scent of bamboo and camphor. "I only wish to serve my mistress."
Yao replied sagely, "One serves the Lady as best as they can, Ji-chan."
To serve the Lady. That had become the goal of Jiju's every waking moment, and she did so with gratitude. Allowing herself a small smile, Jiju recalled when the Lady brought her and her peasant parents to Sendai Castle ten years ago, to serve in the castle's kitchen.
Since that day, her own life took several remarkable turns: a terrible fever killed both parents within days of each other, leaving Jiju an orphan. She would have ended up a slave if Lady Sendai had not taken action so quickly. Before she knew what was happening, Jiju was awarded to the Lady as her personal ward, a fact which managed to help the then eight-year old girl get over the loss of her parents.
After she mourned for her parents, Jiju lived a life of endless innocence under the Lady's roof. Until her benefactor stated that Jiju needed a proper education.
"A proper girl must learn many things, if she is to maintain honor in the court of a daimyo," Lady Sendai had told her. The woman then gave Jiju over her most trusted retainers to start her training. Over the years, one servant after another would teach her what she didn't know. First the mental disciplines; reading, writing, numbers and the forms of counting. Books, scrolls and tablets of wax. Then came the proper way for a girl to act in a lordly house; manners and etiquette; how to eat, speak and sit. After this, more physical regimens; strength and speed, balance and nimbleness, for which the captain of the Lady's personal guard saw to Jiju's instruction.
And so on, until one day in her twelfth year, Lady Sendai personally escorted her to the simple quarters of Yao, a Chinese manservant in her employ, given as a gift from a mandarin across the sea. Her command: "Teach this duckling your ways of movement. I give you five seasons to accomplish this. If she fails, you will be beaten, and she will become a drudge for the castle kitchen."
At that time, the girl had shuddered, she had no wish to become an eta. Never since the death of her parents had she been so afraid.
Yao looked at her, his dark eyes deep and mysterious. Bowing to the Lady, he replied, "As I serve you, so shall it be done, Lady." And thus began her time under Yao's guiding hand.
Now, Yao's thick voice broke her reverie. "After four turns of the seasons, you have learned all there is to know about Tai'chuan. I can teach you no more."
The cold sweat that accompanied fear replaced the hot kind that covered Jiju's skin. "Forgive me, Sensei, but I do not understand--?"
"Your time spent learning with me is at an end," Yao explained softly, cutting across her query like a fine edge. "Now, you must learn from another."
Her bright green eyes widened. This strange form of moving had recently taken up the sum of her focus, her life. The forms once so alien and difficult were like second nature to her now. She could perform the various forms in her head, in her sleep even. Bewildered, all she could do was ask, "Why, Sensei? What more am I to learn that you cannot teach me?"
Yao shook his head. "That is not for me to tell, child." He lifted one arm, the hand pointing behind her. "That trail will take you to those that can."
Turning, she looked at the dirt trail, seeing it vanish into the tall pines in the morning light. "Where does this go?"
"To where you will learn a new lesson," Yao replied. Watching her, he couldn't help but feel concern for her, but he brushed it aside with calm knowledge, rooted with knowing her deeper strengths. Teaching her what his father's father had taught him had forged a bond between the old man and the girl; together, they had grown to respect and see one another as more than what the simple teacher-student roles had placed them in. Yao had no doubt that Jiju had the makings of a fine young woman inside her.
"Sensei... what am I to learn now?"
His next words were edged with sadness. "You will see. May Lord Buddha guide and protect you."
Jiju turned to face him, but all she could see was empty air.
"Sensei!" Jiju crossed to stand at the edge of the cliff, looking over the side, but no sign of her master remained. She was alone, far above her home below. She had never been this high into the mountains without someone to guide her back down. A moment of panic froze her blood.
"No," she told herself, wrestling her fear back down. "Fear brings the small death. I will not fear. I have learned much since coming to this place. With or without my sensei, I shall do as I am told."
Looking back over her shoulder, she eyed the entrance of the path. Turning, she made her way over the mossy rocks to the dark earth of the trail, where she stepped gingerly onto the path and began moving down along it.
Away from the exposed cliff, the light slipped into the canopy of branches, muting the surrounding air in the forest with a gray-tinged glow. Sheltered from the directness of the sun, the morning mist wove thick between the trunks.
Remembering Yao's teachings on fear, Jiju breathed deeply and forced herself into a temporary calm. Reaching up with one hand, she fingered the tie on her braid from time to time while walked along the trail. The lack of sunlight among the trunks made her rub her arms against the coolness collecting on her skin. Sniffing the moist air, she sneezed from the heady scents of the varied trees around her. In time, the trail began to widen. It reached out like one of the long roads that lead from the village to the castle. Several arm-lengths across, it grew less rough and more smooth, as if several sets of feet had trampled it flat.
Suddenly, it merged into a small clearing, with trees that must have been as old as the First Sovereign Emperor reaching high above, forming a cathedral of branches over it all. Sound seemed to vanish into the thick bark of the trees, and even the wind became still here, allowing the mists to hang like the banners on the castle walls; idle and unmoving.
Coming to a stop, Jiju slowly reigned her racing heart in. Despite feeling her skin wet with sweat, chills raced along her entire body. Pivoting on one foot, she looked closely at every trunk, every shadow, taking in the mists curling around her, taking in the sound of utter stillness. In the center of this clearing lay four, white stones, resting in a perfect line across.
Jiju turned to look around once more. Something dwelt in this fog-shrouded clearing, a power... if it was good or evil, she could not say. But, when she turned around to look for the trail, her eyes widened at the sight of four cloaked and hooded figures, standing on the rocks where nothing had been before.
"You come," one said, standing tall and thin.
"You seek," said another, stout and broad.
"A purpose," the forth intoned, sounding sibilant and slurred.
"A destiny," the last decreed, tall as the first, but sounding decisively feminine.
As one, they all breathed, "So kah."
Jiju swallowed nervous bile, looking from one figure to the next before bowing at the waist in suplication. "I-I come, for I seek a teacher. I am commanded by my mistress to learn a lesson from this teacher."
Three of the four looked to their last. The one who simply nodded again. Then, they all faced her and spoke with one voice::
"Take the first step, as one does when choosing to walk, and seek the Life Lesson."
Jiju blinked, grasping at the meaning of the words. Looking down, she noticed a single object on each of the rocks; a sheathed sword, an open scroll case with the wooden handle of a scroll sticking out, a wooden staff and an iron dagger.
"What am I to do with these?" she asked.
"Choose," one stranger intoned.
The girl blinked, staring down at the objects. Choose? Choose what? One of these things? With slow steps, she walked the length of the stones, her mind working over this riddle while the strangers watched impassively.
She walked back to the first stone, where the sword lay encased in a lacquered sheath. As she did, the stout figure stepped closer. With a slow hand, they pulled the hood back, revealing a face lined with age, with hair silvered from temples to the end of its warriors topknot.
Jiju recognized him, inhaling sharply. "Kokou-sama?"
The old guard just nodded, before looking to the sword at his feet.
Bending down, Jiju reached for the hilt with her left hand, feeling the corded handle slide into her grip. She raised it to eye level, running her eyes over the wooded sheath. With one last look at the old captain, she gripped the scabbard and started to expose the steel inside...
War. Fire and smoke. A battle raged between peasant fighters and armored samurai. Iron sparked against steel. Blood ran like rivers over bodies below her. She stood beneath the banner of a damyo. Scars covered her breastplate and arm guards. The sword gleamed red in the dying sun. She sees many blades slake their thirst this day.
A roar of voices. The charge is met under the banner, where she fights for her life. Back to back, she weaves steel like a master. The arrows fall like rain. Comrade and Master, Friend and Foe alike fall this day. She turns to aid a fallen warrior leaning on a staff, only to meet the point of a sword w hen she looks back into the sun...
Gasping, she let the sword fall against the stone, clutching her side to stem the flow. But no blood stained her fingers. Her flesh remained whole. Looking around, she saw nothing of the war, the deaths, the endless fighting. She was back among the trees, with the four in their robes before her.
"What... what was...?" she gasped, breathing heavy in fear of what she faced.
But no answer came from Kokou. Instead, he seemed to nod in consignment before stepping back, taking his place next to the others.
"Choose," the first stranger commanded.
"Choose, little frog," Kokou said simply, using the name he had given to Jiju after teaching her how to swim in the surf, behind the castle's far wall.
Shaking her head, Jiju tried to make sense of what happened. What did she see? Images? Visions? Looking down on the stones again, Jiju put her fear aside for the moment. Choose, they said. But, what am I choosing?
She fixed upon the scroll case, where the paper rested on the rod, exposed to the misty air. Approaching it, she spied the tall figure hobbling towards her. Even before it came to rest next to her, she recognized who it was by that walk. "Master Tsu?!"
Shaking the hood from his shoulders, the whiskered face of the Lady's stern-but-kindly scholar emerged. The white-haired master of words still wore his habitual skullcap, nearly making Jiju laugh out loud to see his familiar face. Snorting as he always did, Tsu said nothing, his breath rattling in his chest. Misty weather always affected him that way, Jiju thought, but Tsu didn't reach for his flask of medicines to ease his breathing. Instead, he fixed his narrowing eyes on the scroll at their feet.
Jiju nodded, hesitantly kneeling. With what happened when she tried to draw the sword fresh in her mind, she gripped the handle of the scroll and made a slow motion to pull it free...
A school. Students laboring over old texts. The hiss of brushes over paper, mingled with the sound of voices in contemplation, against the background of a valley at peace. She stands with the old scholars, tonsured and revered, her robes black over white.
Night time. A crowd comes with torches and weapons. Angry words are spoken, while the students cower in the windows of the school. She speaks to turn the mob away. A stone. She feels her wits slip, as blood drips from the cut. Falling aside, she cannot stop the torches, nor the anger as it consumes the school. As the old and young are stoned while trying to defend themselves with staves, she feels the bite of a ax in her back...
Once more, she found herself back in the forest before the stones again. With a sharp breath she released the scroll and case, tripping over a loose pile of forest litter to sprawl against the ground as she scrambled backwards. Watching as the scroll clattered against the stones, she could see the disapproving look in Tsu's eyes.
"Ancestors... what magic are you demons using on me!? What sort of lesson is this?" She shifted to her knees, looking from one to the next.
After replacing the scroll inside the case, Tsu rejoined Kokou and the others, folding his thin hands into his sleeves. "Even now you show... little respect for the written word. Tsk! You must... choose."
The first stranger echoed the word, "Choose."
Fighting her frustration, Jiju rose, whipping her braid over one shoulder. Breathing deeply to quell the fluttering in her belly, she asked herself, Choose? Choose what!? What did this all mean to teach her? All she did was see images... visions of her in places, doing things she had never done before!
Feeling anger starting to bubble inside her, she marched forward, steeling herself before stopping before the dagger, gleaming black against the gray rock. The rightmost of the remaining strangers seemed to appear beside her. Even with his hood in place, Jiju could not mistake the glittering eye that peered at her from within; it belonged to the lone ronin in her Lady's court... "Kage-sama," she whispered fiercely. "What part do you play in this?"
The mercenary said nothing. A slashing nod only confirmed one thing; she had to choose.
Jiju stooped with a savage motion and scooped the dagger, rising with its point aimed down, as if to stab or slash...
The dead of night. A castle wall. With silence, she forces the blade of the dagger across the throat of the samurai standing watch. With efficient skill, she lowered his cooling form to the stones, freezing like a stone guardian before signaling to the rest of her band. Like shadows, they swarm over the castle like ants.
She seeks the lord of this impregnable keep. His death will clear the way for the one who covets his title. His lands. She cares not for such matters. Only the task, the kill, is her concern.
But something goes wrong, and they are uncovered by the samurai guarding this place. She and her fellows fight to complete their task, but luck isn't with most of them, as more warriors pour in from the levels above and below. Forced to use a staff to crack the skull of one samurai, she is pinned by the swords of three others...
Jiju threw the knife away in a rage, scowling as the blade sinks into the trunk of a nearby tree. Both Kokou and Tsu frowned, but the shadow man was indifferent. Stalking across the ground, Kage effortlessly removed the blade before returning to join the other three.
The last stranger said, "Choose."
"Enough!" Jiju screamed. "I am through with these games you play! These images, these... visions of what I have not become! They are not what I am, nor what I wish to be!"
The others did not move, but the last hooded figure titled its head. As if the young girl said something important.
Realizing she was loosing her temper, Jiju strove to control herself. Using a breathing exercise Yao had taught her, she inhaled for a count of four beats, before releasing her breath for another four beats. In and out; she reined in her emotions, forming her wa. She tried to figure what was happening here; these strange things... Visions of herself, not as she was... not yet, it seemed, for in all of them, she seemed much older than her sixteen years now. Certainly not what I am now.
She gasped as the meaning of her thoughts burst like sunlight in her mind. Not what I am... not what I am...
"I saw myself in those visions," she said, more to herself than to the others. "But, they were not of myself as I am now. I... I was that person: warrior, scholar, assassin... I had lived those roles. Those lives. Until they ended."
The four came closer, as if wishing to catch her every word.
"Choose," the last cloaked figure commanded gently.
Jiju rubbed one hand against her pant leg, finally looking at the last item, where it lay before the last stranger. It was a plain staff of polished bamboo, much like the walking stick of a priest, or an old headman.
She licked her lips, kneeling before the rock as she glanced at the last figure. She picked up the staff with both hands, feeling its polished texture against her skin...
She was rising. Standing on her feet. She walked forward, never looking back except in fond reflection. The path ahead had many twists and turns. Valleys and peaks. She was dressed in the colors of the Lady. The castle's crest embroidered onto the front of her kimono. She bore no weapons. Only the staff which she had taken from the rocks lay gripped in her fist.
She put that staff to many uses: to disarm a ronin, who sought to avenge himself on her companions; to lean on while she discussed matters with an village elder; to pole a boat, carrying children across a river. Along the path, she met many people-samurai, priests, and learned men of wisdom. Lords and commoners. Old and young alike.
But, she listened, learned and taught. Sometimes about fighting, sometimes about peace. And through it all, the staff supported her on her journey through life...
When the vision vanished, Jiju did not let go of the staff, nor did she back away in fear or in anger.
The last figure nodded with an air of approval, as if reading her thoughts. "What is the lesson set before you?"
Jiju stared at the smooth wood under her fingers. For a moment she didn't dare to speak, but then she knew, what had been there all this time. "A life can be focused on one thing, but without an open mind and heart, and faith to support them, it means little in the end," she said, planting one end of the staff into the earth. "This... was a symbol of the faith that none of those lives held."
Her former teachers all nodded, bowing solemnly before her. Each one rose amid smiles. Even sullen Kage-san had an air of approval.
The stranger then reached up to remove the hood, rising regally to smile proudly. "So ka, my ward. You have seen the truth with open eyes. The same truth that I have learned for myself."
The girl's eyes goggled, seeing the porcelain, elfin complexion of the woman revealed. "Lady Sendai!?" She dropped to the forest floor, laying the staff down as she ducked her head, unable to control herself.
Her mistress laughed softly, her porcelain skin seeming to contrast with her ebony tresses, through which her large, pointed ears emerged. The Lady motioned to Jiju with one delicate hand. "Rise, Jiju-san. A simple peasant must be prostrate before a samurai, but you are no longer something so simple."
The girl looked up with fear in her dark eyes, holding her tongue.
Tsu snorted with a touch of satisfaction. "Proper manners at all times," he muttered to himself, quickly bowing to the Lady for his own breach of etiquette. Both Kokou and Kage held silent, but mirth danced in their eyes.
Seeing her fears in her expression, the Lady went on to explain, "You have spent these last eight seasons learning from my retainers, Jiju-san." She paused to nod at the other three. "Under them, you have progressed from an unenlightened peasant into a young woman. A woman with knowledge and skills that would be suited well for a samurai, or another loyal retainer. But, I wished for you to learn these to prepare you for a lifetime of learning. And you will begin that lifetime with a new teacher."
Jiju swallowed, fighting against the cold knot in her gut. She dared to ask, "Who is to be my new teacher, Mistress?"
The Lady's dark-jade eyes glittered warmly, lit from within as befitting a daughter of the First Sovereign Emperor. "I will be your teacher, Ji-chan. For you are of a unique spirit; faced with tragedy, most would have collapsed into mourning and done nothing. But, you... you have become a spirit with strong mettle. And I would see that mettle tempered with my own fire."
"But, w-why, Mistress?"
"So that you may take the name of Sendai for your own, and rule in my place as my sole heir." Folding her arms into her sleeves, the Lady explained, "I am ever mortal, Jiju-san, even though I have lived for many long years. My people need someone strong of knowledge, heart and spirit to watch over them and this land. I need someone of my own choosing, who knows as I know, and can continue to make Sendai and its lands a peaceful, prosperous place."
The words impacted onto the girl's ears like a rolling tide. Me? Become the Lady's heir? She shivered under the weight of such thoughts.
The Lady said finally, nodding in dismissal to her three retainers, who turned to precede their mistress down the mountain trail. "Come, Jiju-san. We shall return to the castle. After your lessons today, you must eat, bathe and rest. Tomorrow we shall speak of your future lessons, together."
Stephen R. Sobotka Jr. is a commercial/graphic artist and a writer of fantasy and science fiction. His writing style stems from a strong storytelling base, and he is well established as a writer of fan-fiction and crossover stories-- the most notable work associated with "The Gargoyles Saga": an online continuation of the animated series "Gargoyles".
His current projects are a science-fantasy novel "Under The Telosian Stars", co-writen with his fiance, and several short stories for publication. He currently resides in Spokane, Washington.
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