Monday, June 10, 2013

Free Fiction Monday: Samurai Son

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Samurai Son
M. H. Bonham
Chapter One
Nanashi closed his eyes and took a long breath, sucking in the heady incense before forming the words of the incantation that would bring the demon.  The palace was dark and nothing moved.  Even the air felt stagnant as he forced himself to listen for any sign.  Sometimes the demons came before one could set up proper wards to hold them.
That would be disastrous, Nanashi thought.  The demons, or oni as the commoners called them, were often angry and would kill and eat any mortal who dared control them.  Such was their nature.  But Nanashi had summoned before with success.
He sat in the room, the only light coming from a small altar fire that he had thrown herbs and incense upon.  The sandalwood and cedar—heady in their own right—with the herbs and incense made the smoke was intoxicating.
He drew his tanto, a dagger, from his belt and bared his arm.  After a few moments’ hesitation, he drew the blade lightly across his forearm.  The cut welled up in a red weal; bright crimson drops the size of pinheads dribbled along the cut.  He held his arm over the fire, wincing as he did.
Nanashi wouldn’t have shown such weakness when he was younger.  But he was an old man—a daimyo, or warlord, in the Emperor’s service.  His hair long since had turned gray, but he had it colored so it was as black as night.  His skin was dry as parchment under the white makeup and silken finery.  He wore the very best silk, dyed yellow and black with magnificent patterns sewn throughout.  His eyes, though heavily hooded, still held the spark of hunger beyond his dark irises.
He was from an old samurai family; some said his family had come from the oni themselves.  He had fought many wars and had obtained many victories.  But there was one victory he could never attain, not without help.
He sheathed the tanto and let the blood dribble down in a crimson sprinkle.  It hissed as it touched the flames, and Nanashi spoke in a language seldom uttered in the world: the language of demons.
It was not so much words as hisses, growls, and clicks.  It had taken him a long time to find a book of demon summoning and almost as long to learn to speak the language.  Now he called for the demon that would help him.
Nanashi felt the tremor.  He could hear the rumble in the sky overhead and wondered if the demon would come forward through the clouds.  Clouds were usually Tengu domain.  Occasionally a dragon might fancy itself a weather maker, but their dominion was the sea.  He opened his eyes and saw the flash of lightning through the shoji screens.  He did not need to hear the thunder to know what would happen next.
He raised his arms to chest height and put his palms facing each other.  At first, he thought the oni would not appear.  But then the mist began to form between his hands, and Nanashi felt cold to his very soul.
As the mist coalesced, he bit his lip before shouting the name Enma.  The mist turned red and swirled angrily.  Nanashi stood up, careful to keep his hands the proper width apart.  As the mist took its form, it became something manlike in shape, but much taller—at least seven feet in height.  As it grew solid, its skin took on a red hue and long horns like that of an antelope sprouted from its head and sharp fangs jutted from its lips.  It wore little, save a tigerskin loincloth.  It carried a heavy iron club with spikes—a kanabo—protruding over its striking surface.
The demon hissed at Nanashi, but Nanashi held his ground.  The demon could have smashed the samurai daimyo with no effort at all.  But Nanashi was not afraid.  He spoke in the demon’s tongue.
“I have summoned you; you will obey me, Enma.”
The demon laughed.  Its voice grated as it hissed and clicked in response.  “I obey no one, certainly no mortal.  Who dares to call me from my realm?”
“I am Nanashi, Lord of the Middle Realms, right hand of the Emperor Muramatsu.  You will obey me!”
The demon raised its iron club.  In response, Nanashi drew his tanto and held up an amulet that hung about his neck.  The demon shied, its slit eyes narrowed as they looked upon the amulet.  It was a small amulet carved from bone with words written across it in another language.  The oni hissed.  “Where did you get that?”
Nanashi’s smile was thin lipped and tight.  “You recognize the talisman, don’t you?  It is your promise to my ancestors that you will serve them faithfully.”
The demon’s eyes shifted from the amulet to the man’s face.  For a moment, Nanashi wondered if the creature was studying him, to see if there was any deception.  There were stories of men who had not the blood had tried to tame the oni.  Those men almost always met with a hideous end.  Nanashi waited.
The demon’s eyes narrowed slightly, but it did not make an aggressive move.  “What is it that you desire?”
“To become emperor.”
A low rumble started in the demon’s chest.  Nanashi raised his tanto, thinking perhaps the demon would attack, but then he realized the sound was laughter.
“Foolish mortal!  You are like all men whom I have served: greedy and stupid.  In the end, it is all for naught.  You know there is a price.  We must feed.”
“We?” Nanashi asked.
“You’re asking me to help you overthrow a dragon’s heir.  The ryu will not be pleased that you killed one of their children.  Against a dragon, one oni can do little.  But a dragon can do little against a demon army.”
Nanashi nodded.  “But the amulet will not allow me to summon all of you.”
“No, it will not.”  The demon slavered a bit.  “And you have not enough food for me to eat, let alone those who would follow me.”
Nanashi raised his hand, letting the amulet fall back to his chest.  With his free hand, he pulled open a sack that sat nearby.  He reached in and removed a severed head, still dripping with gore.  He held the head by the topknot, which denoted it was once a samurai.  Nanashi tossed the head to the demon and stepped back.
The demon caught it and with its great teeth tore into the grisly food.  Its sharp fangs ripped into the dead man’s face, and Nanashi watched impassively as the teeth crunched through the skull and ripped out flesh, brain, muscle and bone.  When the demon had devoured it, it turned to Nanashi, blood and gore dripping down its fangs.  “That was a good prize, but it hardly makes a meal.”
“There will be more, much more, should you help me become emperor.”  Nanashi did not lower his tanto.  “How can I summon enough demons to have a demon army?  How can I control them?”
“The demon gate: the Kimon.  Destroy the Guardian, and we will be free to enter this world.”
Nanashi frowned.  “A demon gate?  Where is it?”
“Northeast in Neko-shima, the island of cats.  The Neko guard the Kimon.  We cannot enter from there as long as there are guardians on Neko-shima.”
Nanashi nodded.  “I am the Neko’s daimyo.  They are not many.  I should be able to find enough reasons for wiping out the Neko clan.”
The demon laughed as Nanashi released it to return to the world of the oni.  Nanashi turned for a moment as he felt a niggling sensation that he was being watched.  But looking around, he could see nothing.  He stood up, his mind filled with a plan for eliminating the Neko.

Chapter Two
“Practice!  Practice!  Bah!”  Rokuro sensei spit in the dirt as he watched his apprentice.  Rokuro’s face crinkled into a deep frown.  Normally the color of old parchment, it held a tinge of red from his anger.  He slapped the boy’s shins with the staff, causing Akira to wince from the pain.  Akira bent his knees in a crouched stance.  His muscles quavered as he forced himself into that uncomfortable position.  He had pulled a muscle earlier that week in sparring practice against Rokuro, and it took all his concentration to keep that stance.
Looking at the sensei, Akira could hardly believe this frail, old man could deal such a blow.  Rokuro was stooped and bent with arthritis, and his hands shook when he handled the bo.  Still, he was lightning fast and could hit Akira before Akira could lash out.
“Akira, you are by far my laziest and most worthless student,” Rokuro snapped with such vehemence, Akira winced.  “Your kata is atrocious.  I’ve seen five-year-olds do their basic forms better than you.”
“Yes, Sensei.”
“You’re sloppy with your bokken.  How do you expect to use a katana in battle properly?”
“Yes, Sensei.”
“Is this how a samurai fights?  What will you do when you are forced to fight another samurai for your lands?  Or fight for your father when another daimyo threatens his?  If I were daimyo, I would be ashamed to have such a worthless son.”
Rokuro continued his tirade, which Akira tuned out.  He knew the lecture would continue for the better part of an hour, having endured so many of them.  It wasn’t that Akira was bad at any of the martial arts.  He was actually very good.  Some said he was Rokuro’s best student, but no one would know it by the way Rokuro harangued him so.
Akira felt his leg knot up from the stress but dared not shift in the deep stance.  He gritted his teeth against the pain, lest he face another one of Rokuro’s “lessons.”  The old samurai master was known for scarring his pupils in the name of training.
Even so, his leg muscles began to shake, and sweat formed on his brow.  The pain hammered at him mercilessly, but he tried to focus on the world around him.  Akira had learned this little trick early on, something most samurai children under Rokuro’s training had not.  Akira knew it said something that he was able to endure the rigorous training of the old samurai master when all the other children his age failed.
Akira let go of the pain.  Pain was something he could ignore if he so chose.  Standing in the courtyard of his father’s estate, Akira could hear the bells and wind chimes tinkle gently in the breeze and smell the briny ocean not far from them.  The thick pines along the hilly estate whispered their welcome to him.  The hot sun beat down relentlessly; he wasn’t even allowed to wear a hat over his fine black hair or to shield his almond-shaped eyes from its glare.  At least the gi he wore was white and not black.
Not far from the courtyard rose the lofty estate Akira’s father, Takeshi daimyo, had built.  Its rosewood pillars contrasted against the white walls and blue, upturned tile roofs.  Next to the courtyard lay a beautiful reflecting pool.  In it, brightly colored orange, black, white, and blue koi splashed to reach up and snatch insects along the water’s surface.
Yet Akira could see none of this.  His bare foot shifted on a pebble, and Rokuro’s bo smacked his leg again for moving.  This time Akira’s leg shuddered, and he couldn’t control it as he collapsed into the courtyard’s hot sand.
“Get up!” Rokuro said.
Akira took a ragged breath and glared at the sensei.  What did he care if Rokuro expelled him now?  Even as he thought this, Akira knew he couldn’t allow himself to fail.  Such action would dishonor his father.  He couldn’t do that.
“Lazy!” snapped Rokuro and smacked Akira’s leg again.
With a roar of anger, Akira leaped to his feet, despite the pain.  He swung the bo hard at Rokuro.  Rokuro blocked the staff with a parry.  Akira swung again.  Rokuro parried and countered.
“There!  There!  That is how you fight!” Rokuro growled.
Akira didn’t care.  The blind rage that often threatened to well up did so now.  He swung the bo fast and hard, causing Rokuro to back up.  The staffs smacked against each other with sharp cracks, and Akira charged forward.
Rokuro feinted and Akira, in his anger, took the bait.  Rokuro guided both weapons end first into the dirt.  Rokuro swept Akira’s legs out from under him with his foot, causing the young samurai to fall over backward.  Akira’s leg throbbed horribly as he stared at the end of Rokuro’s bo, pointed directly at his throat.
Akira licked his lips and tasted sand and salt.  He blinked at the samurai master, his own hands empty.  Akira’s bo lay just out of reach on the ground.  For a moment, he thought Rokuro would drive the end into him.  It had been said that Rokuro had killed students who failed to fight admirably.
“Do you wish mercy?”  Rokuro’s voice sounded unusually harsh.
Akira bit his lip and swallowed hard.  He wanted to run and hide.  But he could not escape the bo.  Rokuro was too quick.
“No,” he said softly.
“No,” Akira said a bit more forcefully.  “A samurai does not beg for his life.”
Rokuro pulled the bo back as though to strike.  Instead, the old samurai returned to the ready position.  “Not bad today, Akira-san,” he said in a gruff tone.
Akira blinked and sat up, wiping the golden white sand from his face.  His leg ached as he stood up, and he tested it gingerly to see if he could put his full weight on it.  He looked to the main house, where he knew Ikumi would be watching.  Ikumi would fret over his injury—she always did—but she would not embarrass him by rushing out and coddling him.  Yet when he looked for his mother, he saw no one.
“Where is Ikumi?” he wondered aloud.
“Eh?”  Rokuro hovered nearby.  “Never mind that.  You must still train.”
“But we’ve trained all morning.”  Akira rubbed his leg.  It hurt so much, he thought he wouldn’t be able to walk.
“Not that it seems to have done any good,” Rokuro snapped.  “You’ve hardly practiced in your free time.”
Not that I’ve had any free time, Akira thought.  “Yes, Sensei.”
“Go get some food and meet me back here in two hours.”
Akira bowed and headed toward the kitchens to find food.

Chapter Three
The little cat had curled up in the corner of Nanashi’s apartment.  She was the darkest black of any cat, fading into the shadows as though a shadow herself.  Once Nanashi had finished, he stood up and walked out the door.  The little cat followed him, almost at his heels but far enough away so he would not trip over her.  As soon as she got through the door, she shot off down the hallway, sticking to the darkness.  Only as she heard the door lock did she glance back.  The daimyo had locked the room where he had summoned the demon and walked in the opposite direction down the hall.
The cat swiftly moved down the stairs.  She wondered if the demon had seen her, even if Nanashi had not.  If it had, why wouldn’t the demon spoken of her?  Surely it recognized her for what she was.  But oni were difficult creatures at best and did things that were known to only the oni.  Perhaps it relished the sport of a demon and Neko war.  Perhaps it was simply punishing Nanashi for summoning it into this world.  Perhaps having death on both sides satisfied the demon’s bloodlust.  She didn’t know.
She ran down the main hall toward the kitchens, which would not be watched as closely as the main doors.  She suspected that if anyone actually noticed her, they would think of her as a cat and nothing more.  She slipped through the door as one of the attendants entered the kitchen.  It was larger than most kitchens she had seen, with a clay stove with an opening for wood and charcoal to heat it and a fire pit for grilling yakitori and other meats.  The air sizzled from the heat, and the cat rushed through to escape the smoky air.
She stopped for a moment to beg a piece of raw fish from the cook.  The older woman had seen her fairly often.  The cook had a wrinkled face with many laugh lines and skin browned by the sun.  She wore a rough-woven scarf whose dye had long since faded to a pale blue—it might have been indigo—over her gray hair that she had braided in one long strand.
“Neko!  Neko!” the old woman said, smiling and showing her missing teeth.  “You want some fish, little Neko?”
The cat knew the game and did a little four-footed dance with her tail held high.  She mewed plaintively for the fish.
“Oh, Aiko!  Why do you bother with such a silly animal?” another, much younger, cook remarked.  She put her hands on her hips and glowered at the old woman when Aiko laughed.
“Don’t you know anything?  Cats are lucky!  Very lucky!”  Aiko dropped the fish to the little cat, who snapped it up quickly and dashed out.  The cat didn’t listen to any more of the conversation.  She made her way outside through the kitchen’s back door.
She snuffed at the night breeze.  Brightly colored paper lanterns hung from the nearby apartments.  She wasn’t concerned about the gate or the wall.  She simply leaped up and scrambled down the other side.  She dashed into the street and along the wooden housing and apartments, decorated with silk flags and brightly colored wind catchers.
The cobblestones felt smooth and well worn to her pads.  They smelled clean compared to the heavy incense within the demon room.  She could still smell the oni, and turning to sniff her coat, she realized her fur was heavy with the stench of demon.  She wanted to stop and clean herself right there, but it was too dangerous.  She decided instead to continue.
Not until she had gotten to the familiar alleyways and streets where her family’s apartments were did she slow.  The streets were full of beggars, dogs, samurai, and other hazards, and she couldn’t risk getting waylaid with such important news.  Only when she arrived at the back door did she pause.  Looking around first, she then began to morph.
She became larger than a regular cat—about the size of a small panther.  Then her skin and shape began to change.  The hair disappeared and her skin grew pink.  Her thick body became thinner, and her legs grew long.  When she was done, a lovely naked woman with long black hair and dark eyes stood where the cat had been.  She flipped open the latch on the door and entered.
“What are you doing?”
Kasumi nearly jumped at the woman’s voice.  Before her stood an older version of herself, her mother Naotaka Keiko Neko.  The woman wore the regal robes of a samurai wife and frowned as she studied the girl.  She sniffed the air, and her frown deepened.  “Oni?”
“Yes, Mother, I saw a demon tonight.”
“Kasumi-chan, that was dangerous, child.”  Keiko pulled a kimono from the hook that hung just inside the door and handed it to her.  “You must be cold.”
“Mother, Nanashi summoned the demon.”  Kasumi shrugged into the kimono and tied the belt.
The older woman studied her.  “How do you know this?”
“I was there.  Nanashi summoned the oni in one of his private rooms.  He used sandalwood and cedar and really heavy incense.”
“Why did Nanashi summon it?”
Kasumi shook her head.  “He wants to bring in an army of demons.  He wants to become emperor.”
A silence ensued.  Kasumi saw worry crease her mother’s brow.  “There has been talk for many years of Nanashi’s dabbling in the dark arts, but we’ve had no proof.  Until now…”  Keiko turned and scrutinized Kasumi.  “You really stink of demon.  You should wash up immediately.”
“Yes, Mother.”
“And where were you when he summoned it?  Did the demon see you?”
“I was in my small form, curled up tightly behind one of the baskets.”  Kasumi frowned.  “Do you think it saw me?”
Keiko shook her head, but she was clearly worried.  “Child, demons can see behind things and around things.  They can see through our forms.”
“Why didn’t it tell Nanashi?”  Kasumi felt her stomach clench as fear gripped her.
Keiko sighed.  “My guess is the demon didn’t see fit to tell Nanashi, but that may change.”
“Mother, the demon told Nanashi of the demon gate.  The demon wants Nanashi to kill our clan.”
Another silence followed.
“No,” whispered Keiko.  “No.”
“Mother?”  Kasumi gripped her mother’s arm.
Keiko shook her head.  “Go get cleaned up, Daughter.  I must talk to Isamu, who can tell us what we must do.”  She turned and led Kasumi through the apartment halls to the door to the bathhouse.  “Do not say anything about this.  I must talk to Isamu first.”
Kasumi nodded and left the apartment.

Chapter Four
Akira sat on the hill overlooking the town of Yutsui.  Below him lay the terraced rice fields and, above that, the tea terraces.  He sat silently, watching the farmers and peasants working for their living.  He envied their lives.  Their day and the type of work they did was prescribed by their class.  Unlike samurai, who could not own the land, the farmers were landowners and their livelihood assured, barring war, famine, or disease.  Not so with the samurai.  For even a son of a daimyo, like Akira, was not guaranteed his holdings or his importance.  The emperor could take all away with a decree.
He rubbed his arms and legs where Rokuro had given him bruises.  His leg still stung from Rokuro’s bo, and he wished he could make the pain stop.  Why was Rokuro so rough on him?  Why did the old sensei insist on forcing him past his limit?  What was the point?  He closed his eyes and let the afternoon sun warm his face.  Maybe if he stayed up here for a while and no one could find him, Rokuro wouldn’t look for him to start his afternoon lesson.
As he closed his eyes, he heard the distinct caw of a crow.  He looked up to see the black bird sitting in a stray pine tree on the path.  He smiled.  The crow was the bird of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.  Perhaps the goddess pitied him.  The crow tilted its head and hopped down from one branch to another.  It cocked its head as if considering him.
“Sorry, crow, but I have nothing to give to you,” Akira said.  “I didn’t bring any rice cakes with me today.”
The bird ruffled its feathers in response.  Akira laughed.
The bird hopped down to the ground.  Akira watched as the bird boldly strutted up to him and considered him with its bright yellow eyes.  It then cocked its head, and Akira heard a voice in his mind.
You are injured, the creature observed.
Akira stared at the crow.  “Y—yes…”
Now Akira felt befuddled.  The bird was obviously supernatural, but he didn’t know what to think.  He tried to remember old legends his mother taught him about birds, but for some reason, they seemed to be lacking.  “I didn’t do well in training today.”
“Yes, I’m samurai.  I am supposed to know how to fight.”
Ah, perhaps the problem you have is easily fixed.  I could show you.
Akira almost laughed.  How could a bird possibly help him?  He couldn’t imagine the little crow would know anything.  But, he reminded himself, this was obviously some sort of kami and he should show respect to it.  “You would show me how to…?”
I could show you the proper way to use a bokken.
Akira nodded.  He couldn’t imagine that he could get into trouble with that.  “All right.  What do I need to do?”
Follow me.  With that, the bird flitted to the next tree up the mountain.
Akira groaned as he pulled himself up from sitting.  His legs were stiff and sore, and he limped a little as he walked up the path.  The bird waited patiently for him and took off once he reached the tree, up toward the mountain.  He groaned again.  The walk would be tedious and painful.  It would be easier to trudge back down to the training yard and endure another round of Rokuro’s lessons.
The bird cawed once as he stood there, uncertain.  It is not far, little samurai.  I promise you will enjoy what I have to show you.
It wasn’t every day a crow talked to him.  Curious, Akira took several steps forward despite his pain and followed the bird as it encouraged him higher up the mountain and deeper into the forest.  The road dwindled and became a footpath.  Akira wondered if anyone would look for him.
After what seemed a very long climb, the path broke out into a fairly flat meadow.  He stopped to catch his breath and saw the bird watching him.  He bent down and rubbed his legs again.  He hoped it wouldn’t be very far.  But just as he was about to give up, he saw the bird fly down from the tree.  Much to his amazement, the bird grew.  It took on the body of a man but had the wings and head of the raven.  It was dressed like a samurai with an overcoat and trousers and carried both swords tied to its obi.
Akira stared.  “What manner of creature are you?”
The bird-man laughed.  “I’m a Karasu-tengu.  Haven’t you heard of one?”
Akira blinked.  The word Tengu sounded familiar, but for what reason, he couldn’t imagine.  “I don’t know,” he said truthfully.  “I think I’ve heard of them, but I can’t say.”
The Tengu seemed to not be affronted.  Instead, he considered Akira with his bright yellow eyes.  “You’re not doing well at martial arts?”
Akira shook his head.  He knew it’d do no good to lie to this creature since it was obviously kami.  The creature was a shapeshifter and could have watched him practice with Rokuro.  “It’s not that I’m terrible,” he said.  “It’s just that Rokuro sensei demands so much from me.”
Two wooden bokken appeared in the Tengu’s hands.  He tossed one to Akira, who caught it, much to his surprise.  The Tengu slid the bokken in his obi and stood ready to bow.  Akira faced him and together they bowed.  Both Akira and the Tengu took the ready stance.
The Tengu began first with a simple attack, choosing an overhead strike similar to those that samurai often used.  Akira stepped out of the way, as Rokuro had taught him, and made a basic counterattack.  The Tengu nodded and repeated the attack.  Akira countered again.
The Tengu sped up the attack and forced Akira to move quickly.  His arms ached as he blocked and countered each attack.  It seemed so basic, yet Akira felt slow and clumsy.  The Tengu moved quicker, and Akira overcompensated and lost his footing.  He fell into the dirt and dropped the wooden sword as he did.
“You’re slow and stiff,” said the Tengu with an appraising eye,
Akira grunted as he got up and dusted himself off as best he could.  His clothes were dirty but thankfully not muddy.  The Tengu’s voice held none of the harshness that Rokuro’s had.  “What should I do?”
“Get smoother,” the Tengu remarked.  “Do you stretch?”
Akira nodded but the constant training made him sore despite the stretching.  The Tengu bowed and put the bokken in his obi.  Akira started to bow, but the Tengu motioned him forward.  Akira slipped the wooden sword in his belt and approached the kami.  The Tengu rubbed his arms with his claw-like hands.  They felt rough and powerful, and Akira fought the urge to run.  Instead, he stood there as the Tengu put pressure on his muscles with his long nails.  The pain was excruciating, but Akira could soon feel his muscles relax under the creature’s hands.  Then the Tengu worked on his legs, especially the leg that collapsed under Rokuro’s attacks.  The pain subsided and Akira felt as though he could stand and his leg would hold his weight.
“How do you feel?”  The Tengu cocked his head to study Akira.
Akira slowly stretched and found the knots were gone.  Though still stiff, he was nowhere near as inflexible as he had been.  “Better.”
“Good.  Now try again.”
Akira stood in ready position.  The Tengu started with his first attack, a slashing, overhead attack that cut from high left to lower right.  This time Akira stepped aside and blocked the blow, catching the Tengu’s blade and letting it slide down his wooden sword.  He twisted his bokken upward and caught the Tengu’s exposed side.
“Good.”  The Tengu clacked his beak.  “Again.”  The Tengu tried an upward cut.  Akira dropped and rolled as the bokken whirled overhead.  He lunged into the Tengu, forcing his wooden sword into the Tengu’s abdomen.
So the sparring went.  Akira made mistakes but quickly corrected them.  Before long, he could see he was faster and less stiff, his movement more fluid.  For the first time, he felt real joy in training and laughed as the Tengu tried more difficult moves.  He blocked each move and either slipped inside the Tengu’s defense or skipped away before the Tengu could bring the bokken down on him.
Finally the Tengu raised a hand in a motion for him to stop, and Akira stood, panting and drenched in sweat.  The Tengu, Akira noticed, showed no signs of fatigue.  “You’ve done well for today,” the Tengu said.
“Thank you.”  Akira bowed.  He wiped the sweat beads from his eyes and really felt the cold mountain air, which he hadn’t noticed during the training.  He shivered, wishing he had brought a coat or some other warmer clothing.
The Tengu bowed.  “It was my pleasure, Takeshi Akira.”
Akira started.  “How do you know my name?”
Although he couldn’t quite tell, he thought the Tengu might be smiling.  “The Tengu are wind kami.  We control the winds.  The winds have told us much about a young samurai named Akira.  We wanted to see for ourselves.”
“We?”  Akira bit his lip.  “There are more of you?”
“Oh, yes,” said the Tengu.  “But don’t be concerned about that.”  He glanced up at the sky then turned back to Akira.  “It is growing late, and your sensei will be looking for you to begin your training again.”
Akira groaned.  He was exhausted and didn’t relish the long hike down the mountain.  Rokuro would certainly punish him again for being so tired.  “Thank you.  I better go now.”
“Wait.  I have a gift for you.”  The Tengu pulled out an earthenware flask and handed it to him.  “Drink this.”
“What is it?”  Akira eyed the flask suspiciously.
“It will give you energy and make your muscles less sore.”
The Tengu handed it to Akira, who drank the liquid.  It tasted remarkably like tea sweetened with honey and herbs that he couldn’t place.  Yet as he drank, he began to feel warm inside and less tired.
The Tengu nodded in approval.  “Now if you wish my help in your training, you must keep our lessons a secret.  Can you do this?”
Akira nodded, unable to believe his luck.  A kami would be teaching him the basics of martial arts.  He could barely speak in his excitement.  “I will!  I won’t tell anyone about this.”
“Good.  Come here tomorrow at the same time.  We’ll work on your bokken some more.”  With that, the Tengu disappeared.
Akira drank the rest of the elixir.  With a joyous cry, he started down the mountain, feeling as though he could fly down to home below.

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