- In this chapter, Kyuuzou is not using the S-shaped scabbard because at age 12-14, his arm is still too short to draw the bottom sword from the S-shaped scabbard. So he carries his swords separately in 2 sheaths. S-shaped scabbard will come later.
ni - older brother(can also be used to address an older male friend)
ne - older sister
Soon came the day for Kyuuzou's eldest senpai to leave the dojo. Tashiro Haruko would report as a volunteer soldier to her clan's main castle in the capital of Nankai province. The Nankai'an samurai rose early that morning to brief Mizuho, who would now assume the duties of the senior student. Ayame too rose early to prepare and pack food for her senpai's trip. Unlike her usual custom, Ayame did not ask Kyuuzou to assist her. The boy guessed that the 3rd senpai probably regarded his cooking as not good enough for the eldest senpai's last meals from the dojo.
But Kyuuzou did not feel slighted, despite the fact that he had applied himself diligently to all his dojo chores, and thought himself competent in all of them, cookery included. There were other things on his mind this day. Lingering outside the door of Haruko's room, young Kyuuzou waited silently as his eldest senpai spoke with Mizuho within, possibly for the last time. Kyuuzou had never been particularly fond of the tall mannish woman, and it was not out of sentimentality that he lingered to hear his two senpai converse about the transition of school duties. When his sharp ears picked up the indication that Haruko's meeting with Mizuho was about to come to an end, he retreated down the hallway, all the way to the adjoining corridor. Haruko would pass him on her way to Sensei's study, which was where he guessed she would go next.
Stepping out of her room, Haruko strode towards's Sensei's office, intending to take her leave of the sword teacher, possibly for the last time. She found the pale boy kneeling in the hall.
"O-ni-sama," Kyuuzou's eyes were deferentially downcast.
The broad-shouldered samurai raised her eyebrows. What was the child up to now? The juniors usually called her "O-ne-sama" or 'senpai', though Ayame had taken to calling her "O-ni-sama" whenever she wanted Haruko to do her a favor. The Northern girl had long figured out the social values of the South, a region of the Empire where sons were regarded more highly than daughters. Addressing a mannish woman as a man was a form of 'flattery', perhaps.
Not surprisingly, the 12 year old boy presented with a petitioning gaze. "O-ni-sama, I would like to ask a favor of you before you leave."
"So, another little tactic Kyuuzou has picked up from Ayame," Haruko smirked. While being addressed as "O-ni-sama" or "aniki" might have pleased her to no end years ago, the 27-year-old Wolf was no longer as susceptible to such manipulations.
"And what favor may that be?" The broad-shouldered swordfighter addressed the child.
"Can o-ni-sama tell me... who my mother's family is?" Kyuuzou asked cautiously.
"You already know they are samurai," came the unsatisfying reply.
"What is their family name? And what is the clan to which they belong?" Kyuuzou persisted.
"And why would you want to unearth a past your mother chose to leave behind?"
Kyuuzou's thin, small voice drifted up to the woman who stood over 6 feet tall. "Because... I would like to know more about who my mother was before I came along..."
"Why don't you ask Sensei?" Big Sister replied. Kyuuzou could feel her piercing gaze on the top of his bowed head. The pale-haired child, his small jaw clenched with frustration, perceived that Haruko could read him through and through. He wanted to know who Mother's family was and where they were was so that he could someday find the kinsman who slew her. And Kyuuzou would kill that man in turn. But Sensei had forbade revenge. Sensei would never tell him what he wanted to know. Of the three 'sisters', only Haruko had met Mother. And now Haruko was leaving for the war; she might perish, and there would be no one left to pass him the knowledge that he needed.
The warrior stepped past the kneeling child, taking a few strides in the direction of Sensei's study.
"Aniki!" Young Kyuuzou's voice, an odd mix of restraint and desperation, echoed behind her. That one small cry from a child held so many unspoken sorrows. If Kyuuzou had an older brother, that man would guide him. That man should protect him. That man should show him how a man should fight for what he believed in. Realizing that she was the closest thing to a man in that boy's life, the tall warrior who looked like a man and spoke like a man stopped midstride.
Seeing the pause in Big Sister's step, Kyuuzou raised his eyes towards Haruko hopefully. But she did not turn to look at him. "I was only eight years old when your mother left the dojo to return to her clan and fight in the war. I only knew her for three years. She was very kind to me, and I respected her greatly, but I do not know many things about her."
Kyuuzou suspected that "Big Brother" knew more than these words suggested. Haruko, who kept friendly relations with diverse sorts of women around the Empire, seemed to be in tune with all kinds of gossip from all types of places.
The usually quiet child spoke with unusual eloquence. "How sad it is that a child knows nothing about his mother's life before him? And my mother is gone from me. You are my only link to my mother's past. Please tell me her surname, at least."
"The cunning of children," the samurai with the blue-black hair said to herself. "I wonder if Ayame coached him for this little speech. But it is just as possible the boy came up with those words himself. Even infants who have not yet learnt to walk instinctively resort to emotional manipulation."
Haruko knew that she should not answer Kyuuzou, but there was an almost imperceptible tremor of agony in his young voice that made the warrior's heart ache.
The samurai spoke quickly. "Her family name was Shimada. It is a common- enough name in the Western states. You'll probably find Shimadas in every other Western clan."
It was an acceptable compromise. To be a big brother would mean being firm enough not to give the pleading child everything he wanted. Granting his every whim would not be in his best interests. With one vague clue, the child could do his own work to find his own answers. And if it was in his destiny, Kyuuzou would find what he sought. If it was not fated, it was none of her concern either. Tashiro Haruko strode on without a backward glance, leaving the young sword student still kneeling in her shadow.
Gazing after the departing figure of the tall warrior, the straw-headed child felt confused, not by her answer but by his own emotions. He felt a sense of relief and gratitude at being rewarded with a piece of his mother's past, but at the same time he felt cheated. That information was too vague to be useful for finding Mother's family. "Did Big Brother really help me?"
The next year, Haruko came back to visit us. I saw Big Sister from the window when she rode the fast turtle up to the gate of our school. Dressed in the gray uniform and tall boots of the Army of the Confederated Prefectures, Big Sister looked the same, yet different - almost like a stranger. Maybe it was the military uniform. Before she left us for the army, aniki was already an imposing figure - a broad-shouldered fighter who carried herself with the easy, understated confidence of one who felt no need to prove herself to others. But when I saw her returning in her smart high-collared uniform and shiny boots, it seemed that her old relaxed confidence had sharpened into the stern, proud demeanor of a professional soldier. And I thought, maybe one day I could wear that uniform too.
As I rested my eyes on Haruko's tall frame, I could not help but think this was how one of the mighty men of the ancient South must have looked. Those early samurai who won the Empire for the first Amanushi thousands of years ago. I've heard people sing of the legendary warriors from ages past - the ancient Southern samurai who repelled the feared cavalry of the fierce Northlanders with their strategy, skill, endurance and courage, and who went on to conquer the continent for the first Emperor. The Southlanders were the people who first established the Empire. To a greater or lesser degree, their language and customs have left their mark on the rest of us.
"O-ne-sama!" Mizuho and Ayame cried out with joy, running out the door to welcome our senpai. I hung back, standing in the door frame, watching. I had not forgotten Big Sister 'cheated' me. Well, she did not really cheat me, but there was still bitterness in my heart. Then again, I could not remember the last time my heart had not been bitter.
After Haruko had embraced my two senpai, she turned to me. "Kyuutaro, come over here."
With slight reluctance, I obeyed. Big Sister pulled a long cloth-wrapped bundle out from under the saddle of the fast turtle. Head bowed, I carefully received the long bundle with both hands.
"You can unwrap it now," Haruko flashed a smile.
While Ayame peered over my shoulder, I untied the string that held the roll of coarse white cloth together, unrolling the cloth wrapper to reveal twin swords in rather nondescript black scabbards.
"For you," Big Sister said. The last time she said those words to me, she was handing me a stuffed toy. Now she was handing me my first 'real' swords. The blades I wielded in the dojo were cheap swords used for training. But these ones... these katana were not the same. They looked strong and beautiful.
"Wah..." Ayame and Mizuho exclaimed at the light reflecting off those polished hilts. The ends of the hilts were shaped a little like those of Mother's swords and Haruko's swords, but otherwise, these hilts were different. The handles of my new swords had a curvilinear form and slight indentations designed to give the wielder a better grip.
"The newest in ergonomic technology, ne?" Mizuho commented. Ayame touched the sword hilts cautiously, careful not to smudge my precious gifts. The weapons looked expensive.
Mizuho held one of the swords for me while I unsheathed its twin. Beholding the brand new white blade gleaming in the sunlight, Ayame pouted. "Now you have nicer swords than I do!"
Now I truly felt glee. But I did not show it.
I gazed at the keen blade and my own reflection stared back at me. For the first time in my life I thought maybe, just maybe, I looked like a samurai.
"I had them forged by the best sword smith in Sai'an City," Big Sister, strong as death, put a hand on my shoulder. Her coal-black eyes bore into me, issuing both a command and a challenge. "I think you're old enough to graduate to real swords. Use them worthily and care for them well!"
"Thank you! O-ni-sama!" I replied. "I will not disappoint you."
All of a sudden, I felt like a grown up. A samurai boy receives his first real swords from his father at his coming of age ceremony. I was not a samurai, I had no parents, and I had not yet come of age. But all of that did not seem to matter at the moment I held my first real swords. I felt like a prince. I had o-ni-sama. And I was no longer angry with Big Sister.
Haruko did not stay long. Before the day was over, she was on her way back to her regiment. Mizuho and Ayame said they would train hard for one more year and then go to join Haruko. That evening, Second Sister and Third Sister talked to each other excitedly about what the next year would bring but they said nothing at all about whether I could come with them. I was not pleased, but that same night, before I slept, I gazed upon my new swords and told myself I would one day prove that I am worthy.
End Kyuuzou POV
A year later, Kyuuzou's two remaining senpai decided to leave the mountain and enlist with Big Sister's battalion. Haruko had written letters of recommendation for them. The red-eyed boy watched mutely as Ayame and Mizuho packed their bags. He made no effort to assist them, and they did not ask for his help. Kyuuzou knew he would be left behind. As before.
Ayame, picking up her bag, turned to Kyuuzou with a somewhat regretful smile. "After we're gone, you will have Sensei's undivided attention. Maybe, the next time I see you, you will be a better fighter than I am."
The 14-year-old nodded without feeling. He would be alone once more.
After bidding farewell to Sensei, the girls went to the gate. Kyuuzou did not stand up to send them off. The two female fighters turned their heads, throwing him a quizzical look. Then Mizuho smiled. "No need for goodbyes. You will see us again soon. We'll come back when we have leave."
"Yes, there is no need for goodbyes," Ayame added. "In 2 years, you will be old enough to enlist. If we're still alive, come and join us."
Kyuuzou remained wordless. Mizuho gave him a slight nod before the two young women headed down the mountain path without a backward glance at the house where they lived and trained for so long.
As the fair-headed boy watched the departing figures of his seniors, a small smile slowly broke through his impassive features. "You will still be alive in two years," he said voicelessly. "You have to stay alive, because when the time comes, I will follow you down the mountain."
And for the first time in a long while, he felt something akin to hope.