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Authors: Jessica Amanda Salmonson

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BOOK: The Golden Naginata
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Tomoe's evil mood lessened with the sight. She never expected to feel admiration for the dirty ronin. She picked her hat off the ground, dusted it, and said to Ich 'yama, “That was excellent.”

“I know!” said Ich 'yama, eyes sparkling.

Azo Hono-o inspected the clean, killing wounds approvingly. She started to slip away, for what reason Tomoe wasn't certain. “Where do you go?” asked Tomoe; but Azo Hono-o withdrew into an alley and vanished.

“Who was she?” asked Ich 'yama.

“A friend who wants to duel,” said Tomoe. “I expect someday we will … but I wonder why she ran away. It's been a day of strange meetings! As I don't believe in coincidences, I suspect occult intervention.”

She and Ich 'yama left the corpses for others to clear away. Since samurai could lawfully slay anyone equal to or below their own station, an investigation was unlikely, especially in the case of gamblers.

“Did you learn anything?” asked Ich 'yama. “No? Me either. I went to the most despicable places searching!” He jokingly feigned disgust for the necessity. “The bathhouse was overcrowded, so I didn't get a chance to bathe … but … I
did
do something!” He blushed like a lovestruck boy as he removed a rectangle of paper and a piece of yarn from his sleeve. He had written on the paper. Seeing a rather scraggly bamboo bush nearby, he hurried toward it and began to tie the paper to a branch. “I wrote it myself!” he said. “Please read it!”

Despite herself, she was curious. If anyone had ever written a poem for her before, they had not had the nerve to show it to her. Ich 'yama's poem read:

Women are inconstant

as streaks of golden sunset

under clouds.

She was immediately incensed. Doubtless it was intended to convey his sadness regarding her unresponsiveness to amorous clues; probably she was supposed to be flattered to be compared to golden sunsets. But the charge of inconstancy was entirely false! It revealed the ronin's self-centered ignorance more than any comprehension of Tomoe's strengths or nature. She tore the paper from the limb and crushed it in her palm. Ich 'yama was surprised. Tomoe growled at him, “Your sentiment would be appropriate for a courtesan or girlish page. Either might reply happily to your bid for sympathy. But to level a charge of inconstancy against a
bushi
is to challenge my very honor as a samurai! I will prove my constancy with my sword. You will agree to duel?”

Ich 'yama stammered, “I—I didn't mean … I—I only meant …”

“Tomoe Gozen!”

It was Prince Shuzo Tahara hurrying out of an inn. He must have been watching this drama unfold from an upper floor window. Hidemi Hirota was with him, as they too had been spying through the low districts and doing so as a team. Tahara stopped two sword-lengths away from the man and woman samurai, and shouted as though he stood a long way off,

“Tomoe! Place your priorities according to your conscience! You want to duel the ronin! What is more important!”

“Don't meddle, Shuzo!” she said. “He has been an affront to me all day. He has even accused me of inconstancy! I cannot waver now.”

“Let them fight,” said Hidemi.

“No! Ich 'yama has ten of the faces in his brain! Tomoe has another ten! If one dies, or they kill each other, part of our task will go uncompleted!”

“Tell us the names of the men,” Hidemi suggested to Tomoe and Ich 'yama. He looked at the prince and added, “Then we can let her kill the ronin.”

“I said no!” The young prince had the commanding posture and tone of his class, but lacked years and experience. It took more than blood to be a strong leader to samurai as willful as these. He could only plead to their sense of duty: “If you must fight, do so with
boken
. A wooden sword won't ruin our chance of seeing our task completed.”

Tomoe had pushed her sword out the length of her thumb. The sword was not yet drawn. Ich 'yama looked terribly burdened and upset. He said,

“I will agree to what Shuzo Tahara says, Tomoe! We will test each other with sticks!”

Prince Tahara decided the terms: “It will be at dusk, in the gardens where we already agreed to meet. The bonze can be a witness too.”

Tomoe said, “It is dusk now.”

“Then we'll repair to the gardens,” said the prince. “Hidemi, please run ahead and find a pair of strong bokens.” Tomoe pushed her sword tight into the scabbard, saying,

“Good.”

Hidemi Hirota was sweaty from having raced in search of wooden swords. He rested on his knees near the monk. Shindo sat in the gardens with his pilgrim's staff at his side, his sword next to that. He did not look pleased. Tomoe was not unaffected by Shindo's stern expression. Despite the gloomy circumstances which brought the five together, Shindo had been of bright humor. Now his humor was spent. The prospect of two in their group fighting against each other rather than a common enemy had completely overwhelmed his cheerfulness. Tomoe's guilty feelings caused her to feel defensive. When she, Prince Tahara and the ronin came into the garden, she asked the bonze coldly:

“Why wrap the sticks in straw!”

He set the padded bokens on the ground in front of him and denied Tomoe the courtesy of reply. He addressed the entire situation instead: “I will not consider either of you good warriors if you cause so much as a bruise. No, do not argue! The test of skill is not whether one of you can hurt the other. If you can control your blows so well as to cause no injury,
that
is the measure of supreme understanding of your weapons' merits and limitations. Bokens are not swords, yet they are deadly weapons; therefore I have wrapped these in straw. If one of you kills the other by accident or intent, then both of you will have shown yourselves poor samurai. Your present duty is to Okio's vengeance. When that is done, you may kill each other at leisure. I won't say more. Nor will I be a witness.” Finishing his lecture, Shindo took up his sword and placed it in his sash. Then, with staff in hand, he stood and went into the house, not looking back.

Hidemi Hirota took up the straw-wrapped bokens. He said, “The bonze was ill tempered the instant I informed him of the match. I don't understand his complaint.” He let Tomoe choose first between the bokens. They were identical, but she weighed them both before choosing.

Prince Tahara said to the fighters,

“It is unfortunate that Ich 'yama has alienated half his fellows. It is more unfortunate that Tomoe Gozen's temper leads to this. It is almost as unfortunate that Hidemi encourages the fight and wants so badly for the ronin to be killed. Do as the bonze directed. Do not let there be a fourth unfortunate item for my list.”

Hidemi gave Ich 'yama the remaining boken with far less ceremony. He said to the ronin, “Tomoe is famous! My own Lord has mentioned her merit with reverence and awe. There are perhaps five fencers anywhere in Naipon who could begin to stand against her. Think of that when she holds back and does not bruise you.”

Ich 'yama took a stance facing Tomoe Gozen. Tomoe held her boken straight before, the hilt gripped firmly in both hands. She dug her toes into the soil of the garden. Ich 'yama slid his right foot closer.

They clashed.

Fell away.

Bits of straw scattered in the air. Hidemi looked disappointed that the ronin was not touched. Prince Tahara looked surprised and began to watch more closely. Neither of the mock-fencers revealed their feelings.

They circled one another. Ich 'yama gave ground, moving backward through a thicket. Unexpectedly, he moved forward, a blow aimed for the head. Tomoe went to one knee and blocked the cut, slipped out from under the boken and struck for Ich 'yama's arm as she came back to both feet. A twist of the hand and he had stopped her counter cut. Again, they backed away from one another, bokens pointing outward from their centers.

Already their brows were sweaty. It was a strain for them to hide their feelings. Neither had expected a close match. Both had thought to win instantly.

The straw hung loose from the bokens, sad padding indeed. The pair engaged in another set of exchanges which proved neither one superior.

“It could go on all night!” said Hidemi Hirota. “How can a ronin be so good?”

“Shush!” the prince reprimanded. He and Hidemi followed the fighters through the large gardens, along paths or trampling through beds of flowers. There were no lanterns lit. As twilight became night, it was harder to see what was going on. Outside the garden, a koto played love melodies. Stars winked as darkness deepened.

Tomoe stepped into a narrow brook which ran through the grounds. Ich 'yama rushed her with his sword held high and his trunk entirely exposed to a sideways cut. She tried for the swift strike, but slipped on algae in the rocky brook, as Ich 'yama must have expected. She started to block his blow but decided to let herself fall away instead, though it meant landing on her side in the shallow waters. Ich 'yama had not expected her to perform an undignified defense. As a result, he fell forward on the momentum of his own thrust and landed face down in pepper bushes. Where the pepper scratched him, it itched.

Neither warrior looked very glamorous now, one soaked and the other scratched. Prince Shuzo called out, “Draw!”

The two had regained their feet and faced one another again. Ich 'yama said, “We should accept Shuzo's declaration, Tomoe! We are evenly matched!”

She said, “I could kill you any time.”

Ich 'yama was indignant. “How can you say so? Admit I fight as well as you!”

“I have tested out your weak spots,” said Tomoe. “I know how to land a cut. If this were true steel, I could kill you right now.”

“You are too boastful!” said Ich 'yama. “I will not consider Prince Tahara's decision any longer!”

Tomoe's teeth shined in the darkness. It was a smile. She said, “Good,” then moved forward.

She waited for his attack. Instead of blocking, she placed her wooden sword against his neck, hard enough to surprise him but not hard enough to bruise.

“I've killed you,” said Tomoe.

Ich 'yama's boken was held firmly against the side of Tomoe's ribs. A real sword would have continued to her breast bone and exposed her heart.

Prince Tahara said, “Tomoe has won the match.”

Ich 'yama jerked around furiously and faced Shuzo. “It was a draw! We killed each other at the same instant!”

“Victory for a samurai is more than coming away alive,” said Shuzo Tahara. “Tomoe was more prepared to die. That is how she won.”

The ronin's face was hot with anger. He threw the scarred and dented boken on the ground and said, “I accept defeat!” As he stomped into the house to find a place to sleep, bonze Shindo came out into the yard. He had been listening out of curiosity, though by his own oath he was not allowed to watch.

“A good night for moon gazing!” said Shindo, his positive disposition regained. But nobody listened, nor looked into the sky.

The samurai was disappointed in her behavior. She'd won the bout with the ronin, but not with herself. It was unlike her to be temperamental, to insist on a fight when one was unnecessary. Now that her anger was assuaged, her guilt was heightened. When the broad-shouldered Hidemi and child-faced Prince Shuzo suggested turning in for the night, Tomoe decided on the monk's occupation instead: moon-gazing. Shindo sat on smooth moss near a large, artificially made pond in the middle of the gardens. The rising moon reflected in the pond.

“Would I interrupt your meditation,” asked Tomoe, “if I sat beside you?”

Shindo showed her his homely, pleasant face, round as the moon. He smiled welcome. They sat together. Tomoe said,

“You are a novice of the
yamahoshi
? I've met mountain men before. They're usually less pleasant that you.”

The bonze was unoffended. “As you are different from many women of samurai caste, so am I different from many of my sect.”

Tomoe's awkward attempt to start a conversation ended there. They were silent for a long while, listening to the night birds and insects. A frog swam through the moon's reflection, carving a transitory wedge. After a while, Shindo said,

“It's odd that no one spied a single man of the fifty today. I suspect they repaired to a shrine or hot springs to purify themselves after they completed their unholy commission. If that is true, they will be cleansed by now. They'll return to Isso tomorrow and celebrate the last day of Star Festival with abandon. We must arrange the revenge-taking in darkness, so that Okio's ghost can come up from the Land of Gloom and watch us.”

Tomoe did not respond. Her thoughts were elsewhere. The bonze recognized her trouble. “Don't treat yourself so harshly,” he said. “The fight with the ronin is done, and great harm was avoided.”

“I try to make myself a little better every day,” said Tomoe. “How could I let a mere ronin ruffle my disposition?”

Bonze Shindo grinned and looked another way.

“You think it's funny?” asked Tomoe.

“I think we must each search our hearts from time to time. See over there among the reeds? There is a brown duck sleeping alone. Is it not sad?”

Tomoe saw no duck. Ducks symbolized family love and faithfulness. Brown ducks were female. Tomoe said, “Do you suggest I'm
fond
of the ronin?”

“Did I say so? No, I realize he is uncouth by your standards. But when you returned to the gardens at dusk, you looked more like someone who had lost her family than like someone desiring a fight.”

“You are perceptive, bonze.” Tomoe looked unhappy. “My father has declared me dead because I refused a marriage meeting. It was bad timing for a ronin's lust.”

“You think it is lust?” asked the novice yamahoshi. “Don't you believe in love?”

“I believe in duty and circumstance,” said Tomoe. “Wives and husbands love each other because it is their duty. The circumstance is arranged by parents and go-betweens, not by love.”

BOOK: The Golden Naginata
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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