Mid autumn, 2260 AURC
I couldn't imagine executing a faster attack, but it failed anyway. Master intercepted my punch, and with my arm trapped it was simple for him to turn me around and send me across the yard. I landed on my back and flipped up to my feet.
Master was breathing hard from the exertion. At least I was able to push him that hard.
"Very good," he said when he'd recovered. "That will be all for this evening. You are making excellent progress. I am pleased."
After all the effort I'd been making over the past few months, it was too much. I exploded. "How can you say that?" After a couple of breaths to calm myself I went on, "Don't spare my feelings. If I was really doing what you said I'd get in a hit once in a while. I've tried as hard as I can to get faster, but I'm not, and I have no idea why you say you're happy with me!"
Master looked me over for a moment as if considering something, then beckoned for me to follow him. He led the way to the porch and sat in his chair. I took my usual place.
"There are several answers, Kitaro. The first is that you lack perspective. This is not a failing on your part; it is an unavoidable consequence of your limited experience. For nearly a year you have been fighting only me. Were you being taught at the monastery where I received my instruction, you would know that you far outstrip not only every other student presently there, but all those in the recorded history of the place. So yes, I am very well pleased. I have never had a reason to be disappointed in you. Except, perhaps, in a selfish way. It does much for a teacher's sense of self-importance for his student to rely heavily upon his guidance. Were I still seeking to puff myself up, you would be distressingly adept.
"Second, you are already faster than I am. You are indeed faster than I was even in my prime. Your timing is exquisite, and you can shift from absolute stillness to the swiftest movement in an instant. All else being equal, it is impossible to defend against you."
"Then how come―?"
"Patience. All else is not equal. When sparring with me your defenses always fail some point, and your attacks never succeed because I know what you will do before you do it. This you cannot overcome with speed alone."
I must have been signaling my moves somehow, but nothing came to mind. "Am I projecting too much qi, maybe, and you're reading that? Or... you must sense it better than I can..."
"It is nothing of the sort," said Master. "Tell me, how long as it been since I insisted you execute combat moves exactly as you practice them in the forms, and according to the set patterns?"
I almost couldn't remember. "Must have been six, seven years ago. Something like that." I faked indignation. "You told me I was hopelessly sloppy with them."
He sighed. "Yes. You must have since realized that the real reason we do not use these things in true combat is that they are predictable. An experienced fighter can anticipate the progress of such moves even as they are being prepared, and thus need not be faster than his opponent to counter them."
"But I don't―" Whenever Master sounds like he's talking nonsense, it's because I've missed something. I thought about it for a short time. No, I haven't been using set patterns when sparring. What have I been doing? I ran over the sequence of moves I used in our last few sessions.
When it hit me I was so angry with myself I pounded the floor, accidentally cracking a board. "I'm doing the same damn things all the time, aren't I? All-Seeing's bouncing eyeballs! Of all the stupid..."
Master let me mostly wind down before he continued. "It is very easy, unless we are constantly on our guard, to fall into habits. In combat this can be fatal. You must break your habits, and be vigilant to see that they do not take root in you again."
I heard him, but I was still going on, "...and I didn't even notice. If I was fighting me, I'd have seen it right away. How could I be so―?
"Habits become habits precisely because we do not notice them. There is usually no harm in them. After two hundred years of the same morning routine, I frequently discover that I have brewed my tea while my mind is otherwise occupied, and have afterward been unable to recall doing it. But in combat, you must be absolutely unpredictable. There are fifteen or so attacks I can rely on from you. You are expert in many more than that. It is time you employed your full range."
I had just spend weeks―no, months―pushing myself as hard as I could, thinking that if only I was a little faster I'd get in that first hit, and now I learn that was completely the wrong direction. I jumped to my feet. "What in the dozen hells have I been doing!"
"Do not think you have wasted your time, Kitaro. You may feel you have been making no progress at all, but that is not true."
"I haven't hit you even once!"
"Perhaps not. However, you have become faster, a thing I would not have thought possible a few months ago. Not that I believed you in particular were incapable of more speed; I believed no one was. Furthermore, receiving my hardest blows over that time has strengthened your defensive qi remarkably."
He'd been knocking me over convincingly enough, but I hardly felt it when he hit me. "You haven't been pulling your punches?"
"What good would come of that? You are long past the stage where I must be cautious with you. Short of external qi techniques, I hit you not one whit more softly than if I was fighting for my life. It would be very difficult now to harm you without a weapon.
"You will nevertheless repair my floor. Training you is nearly as hard on the architecture as it is on the landscape."
I don't know why I never thought of using holds on Master, but that was where I took it first. I found out he even knew about all the ones I'd learned from Thal. It might have been impossible to keep him in one for very long, but I got him there, and soon after I did I was able to throw him for the first time. That earned me a smile. Not the placid smile he usually wore when merely being pleasant. It was intense, fierce, even joyful. I'd never seen him like that before. Was he actually having fun? How long had it been since anything really challenged him?
Early on I was careful to avoid all of my favorite moves until I understood even that was predictability of a sort. I didn't neglect my speed either. More couldn't possibly hurt. After all, what could be more surprising than an attack that arrives before you see it begin?
The weather turned colder and the snow fell, and still we kept at it every day we could even when we had to clear a space in the snow to do it. I was still unable to land a single punch all through the winter, and it was frustrating enough that one day when the weather kept us indoors I couldn't keep my mouth shut about it.
"Kitaro, you are a young man of seventeen," Master told me. "You have extraordinary talent, but it is also true that after nearly four centuries it will not be so easy for you to think of something I have not seen before."
"So what do I do?"
"Were I to tell you exactly it would be self-defeating. But there are many thousands of possibilities. You will have to be persistent."
So I persisted. I tried any combination I thought I could make work, of anything I learned from Master, Thal, Okamoto, or anyone else. And above all, I pushed myself to become ever faster. Then one afternoon during the thaw, when the wood was alive with the sound of flowing water and the brook was in flood, it happened. If I hadn't planned the move I think I would have been too surprised to do anything when he went the wrong way for a block, but the heel of my hand caught him under the chin. He rolled with it, and when he came back to his feet that fierce smile was on him again.
Then our sparring became really intense. Even knowing what I do about Master I hardly expected he was capable of this kind of movement. Until that point he had never bothered to strip down for sparring, but he did now. With his black robes he always looked skinny and frail, but now I could appreciate how hard he was able to hit me and how well I could absorb punishment. His skin was still taut over cords of muscle, and with his limbs free his speed was incredible. It was hard to believe I was faster.
For all that, I'd found the key to the kind of unpredictability I needed and I was able to get strikes in more and more often. Within a month I was giving him as good as I got.
A week before the new year I got the surprise of my life. Master threw a punch. I saw it coming, trapped it between my hands, braced it against my body then shifted my weight to throw him. He halted his momentum with his far leg and brought his other fist around toward my head. There was a shimmer around his hand and the unmistakable feel of his qi radiating from it. He was about to hit me with a Whirlwind!
I had only an instant to decide how to counter it. Dodging was out of the question the way I was balanced and I couldn't block as I usually would. Even with my defenses up a blow with that fist could shatter my bones. I brought my own left hand around, spawning my own Whirlwind as I did and met him with it halfway.
The two vortices repelled each other as they approached, but that was overcome by our momentum and our hands met. The air was split by a double thunderclap. A blast of wind radiated in all directions, kicking up the litter from the forest floor and making the new leaves flutter on their green branches.
We stood still for a moment. Then I released Master from my hold and took three or four steps back, uncertain of what was going on. But Master merely bowed to me and walked into the house.
We didn't speak at all until the next morning. I had just finished making tea when Master emerged from his bedroom. When he greeted me, I almost dropped the pot.
"Good morning, Master Kitaro."
I must have looked the exact opposite of a master with my mouth hanging open like that.
"You should not be surprised. Yesterday you completed the training it is possible for you to receive at my hands. It is a title you have earned."
"But... I'm not..."
"I assure you that you are. You have been qualified for some weeks, but I hesitated to apply the final test."
"Final test? There haven't been any first tests!"
"They need not be formal. It has been many months since I gave over training you in weapons. Your skill with them is superlative and we could not progress further without doing serious harm to each other. In the ways of treating sickness and injury you perhaps have not noticed that the people come to you more often than to me. You have proven yourself skilled in all areas of medicine be it the actions of herbs, the care of wounds, or the infusion of qi to the shu xue. When looking to your own qi and its application you go beyond what I have taught you and draw new knowledge directly from the winds. And a few weeks ago you surpassed me in empty-handed combat.
"There was but one more trial. It may not be strictly necessary, but applying it is a matter of tradition which I did not wish to transgress. It is also the most hazardous, and should the student respond to the master incorrectly the result could be deadly to both. Forgive me. I should have had more faith in you."
I dropped into a chair. "It's over? Just like that?"
"Oh, it is possible to make a grand event of it." He sat down across from me and poured tea for both of us. "Such was done at my old monastery. One is acclaimed, bowed to by all, clothed in black, and so on. It quite inflates one's head. I have come to believe it not for the best."
I swallowed some tea. "So... what do I do now?"
"What do you wish to do?"
I had no answer for him right away. Later in the afternoon the situation still seemed absurd to me.
"I can't be a master. I don't know anything. There's still so much to learn!"
"That is exactly what you need to know."
"So what do you still have to teach me?"
"Master, there must be more. You have all those years on me."
"At your degree, further instruction from me would constrain rather than advance. I learned what I know, when and where I learned it, for who I am. You must do the same in the present for yourself. Experience is now your instructor."
"That could take forever!"
Master shrugged. "That is always true. One learns as long as one lives. And you have plenty of time for learning."
That was something I hadn't even thought about. "How... how much time?"
"That is an interesting question. For myself, I have come to feel that I perhaps do not have another century in me. I did not achieve this degree until I was over fifty years old, and that was unusually young. A healthy man at that age is far from decrepit, but the decline has begun and one must battle it constantly. It can be slowed, but it cannot be halted. In time, old age overtakes all of us. I have begun to feel it. The past few months especially have been exhausting.
"However, I know of no instance, even in legend, where this degree has been reached by one in the bloom of youth when the powers are in full ascendancy. How much time do you have, sifu Kitaro? There is no way to know. Were I to guess, I would say that barring such mischance as can overtake even those such as we are, you have as much time as you desire."
That night I started going through my trunk. I didn't really need most of what I owned for what I decided to do.
It was a couple of hours after sunrise. I sat on the porch step with my pack at my feet, and Master was in his chair behind me. I'd spent the last week saying my good-byes in town and gathering everything I was going to need for travel. Now I was waiting for Tor. She'd insisted I put off leaving until she got there, and although she was the person I was going to miss the most I hoped she arrived soon. I didn't want to start too late in the day.
I heard footsteps approaching along the path from the castle. It was Tor, but she wasn't alone. Mother was with her. I rose and dashed to meet them. Master followed at a more dignified pace.
Mother was always very reserved. I rarely saw her so much as grin. But now she smiled openly, and it was radiant. She returned my embrace with one arm, her other being occupied by a long, narrow bundle wrapped in cloth that rested against her shoulder.
I still wasn't quite tall enough to look her directly in the eye, but by then I was resigned to the fact that I was never going to be very big.
"My son," she said. "The search of the Wind Dragon for his successor is a matter of legend in Hachido. Of all my children, I least suspected you might be the one. He nevertheless gave me reason to hope in your future greatness at a time when I feared you would be faced with a lifetime of struggle. You have more than fulfilled that hope. I am very proud of you."
Hearing such extravagant speech from her was almost embarrassing. I could find no words in reply other than, "Thank you, Mother."
"There is one thing more I must do before you depart. You ought to have received arms some years ago, and it is the custom of this place for a young man to take them from the hands of his mother.
"Along with the usual arrangements for my dowry, there was a gift that was mine to bestow to one of the sons of the marriage. The King assumed the recipient would be his heir. He was, as he so often is, mistaken.
"My home, the island of Tetsujima, is renowned for its ironworks. A century and a half ago lived the great artisan Masumore, whose work excelled all that went before and has not been equaled since. The last sword he forged was the best of all. It is a weapon without peer, and has been treasured in my family since his passing. Many have sought to possess it, but not even one of the Eight Warlords has been allowed so much as the sight of it.
"That is what I have to give. I give it now to you."
She pulled at the strings holding the bundle closed. The cloth dropped away to reveal a sheath, slightly curved and glossy with black lacquer. The long haft protruding from it was bound in cord over what looked to be sharkskin. The butt was reinforced with steel but too lightly to be called a pommel, and the guard was small and oval, pierced in a pattern of swirls.
Mother held it out to me in both hands. I received it and bowed. Then I stepped back and drew the sword from the sheath.
My breath caught. The polished steel of the blade flashed in the morning sun like lightning. It was single-edged, curved as you would expect from the sheath and a little less than three feet long, widest near the guard and tapered very slightly toward the end where a sharp but graceful curve brought it to a point. The edge was bordered with a wavy pattern in the metal and narrow fullers ran almost the entire length of the blade near the back side. It was the most beautiful sword I had ever seen.
Even impressive was the feel of it in my hand. It was almost alive, like an extension of my body. The slightest shift of muscle set it in motion, and it could be redirected faster than it took a thought to form.
Master breathed in awe, "In nearly four hundred years I have never seen its equal. If I may, it would be an honor to see it act. Kitaro, will you prove the blade?"
"What should I use?" I could hardly bring myself to talk out loud. "There's nothing here I'd even think of putting it to."
"Here," said Tor. She drew a large silk handkerchief from her sleeve and walked to the middle of the yard. "Are you ready?" At my nod she tossed it into the air and stepped quickly back.
I executed "Falling Leaves of Autumn", a twirling pattern from the curved sword forms that cut twice across and twice down.
Nine small squares of silk fluttered to the ground.
"I would not have thought it possible," said Master, "But I think both weapon and warrior have found one worthy of the other."
I sheathed the sword and we all went inside for tea. Tor didn't have any, but spent the entire time combing out my hair. When we were finished and she'd braided my queue for me one last time, we went back outside. I shouldered my pack. The great sword I slung between the straps.
Tor grabbed me in one of her bear hugs and wouldn't let me go for a long time. When she let me go tears were running down her face and my eyes weren't dry either. "Go shake the world, little brother. I don't think it knows what's about to hit it."
"Neither do I, yet."
Mother was beaming again. I didn't know she could be so beautiful when she smiled. She held me gently and kissed me on the cheek. "Indeed. I think we are not so much sending you off as unleashing you. Farewell, Kitaro my son."
"You go forth to wander in search of instructive experience," said Master. "I think rather it shall come to you wherever you may go. Accept it, and grow in strength and wisdom." To my surprise, he seized me in a brief but powerful embrace. "My work is done," he said.
At the edge of the yard I turned and bowed once more to them all, then set my foot upon the road. Before the end of the day I turned south and began my descent from the mountains I had known all my life.