What The Master Said - 1. What The Master Said
He let out a cry of consternation as he fell down the steps. Noboru was right behind him and as he hit the ground, he heard the door scrape uneasily along its path as the man pushed it fully open, stumbling in behind Aiku. He turned nimbly, feet sliding for a moment on the slippery mixture of spilled rice and straw, but he scrambled to his feet and slid up against the wall.
"Noboru-san, I do not-"
"Silence!" snapped Noboru. He stood there a little unsteadily, the sake bottle in one hand, but his eyes moved stealthily and darted about the room before settling again on Aiku's face. Many mistook him for a bumbling fool once he had a ration's worth of rice wine inside him, but those who'd seen Noboru's temper knew better. He had the co-ordination of an adder and lacked not any cunning.
"I said silence, Busaiku-kun," growled Noboru, lifting the bottle, so that the liquid sloshed about. He snorted to himself at the cleverness of his own wit, an oft-repeated joke. The boy's real name was Aiku, but the older man took great glee in adding the 'bus' on the front, especially when no others were around to defend him. 'Busaiku' denoted clumsiness and homeliness. It was the epitome of poor form. There wasn't any eloquence in the insult, but that was Noboru, through and through. Inelegant and unsophisticated, but thinking himself as such. No, it simply did what Noboru meant it to do. It hurt. It was a malicious barb, a jab that the sensitive young Aiku was completely vulnerable to, not possessing a quick enough tongue to defend himself from the strike. Noboru knew full well what he was saying and he reveled in it, specks of spittle flying out liberally to spatter on the floor as he laughed.
"We have things to talk about, Busaiku," continued Noboru, giving another brief snort of derision. Aiku stared back at him, reddened, his cheeks colouring cherry-blossom pink in embarrassment.
"W-what things?" Aiku stuttered. His hands shook a little, but he leaned against the wall, concealing his fear. Not that it mattered, he was sure Noboru knew how rattled he was.
"Don't you think Ryuji-sensei has enough on his hands, without you little children getting in his way? He is a busy man, you know."
"But Noboru-san, we are Master Ryuji's students. Where else would we g-"
"Yes, yes, I know," breathed the man, raspily, spitting the words out in succession. He stared at the air, gesturing with the sake bottle, the wrap of his kimono slightly loose, the hakama threatening to fall off on its own. He wasn't usually the most punctilious of dressers and had been reprimanded about it by various people at various times, but most had eventually given up and simply concluded that it was the way that Noboru dressed and not even the emperor and all the samurai in Nippon could change that. Even so, it now bordered on the pathetic, the cream of the kimono closer to brown-grey, clothing half askew. "You and the other one have told me many times. 'Master Ryuji says I am his student', 'Master Ryuji says I am learning much', 'Master Ryuji says I am on a path to understanding.' Well, you know what Master NOBORU says? He says that you are past your welcome. You should be in Kyoto, at the other apprenticeship. Not here. Not bothering Ryuji!"
"But Kyoto is-"
Noboru interrupted yet again, grinning as he spoke, his yellow teeth glistening, bathed by the dull sheen of the alcohol. "This is not your home, BUS-aiku."
Aiku flinched again, terrified of this viper in front of him. He felt weak inside, beaten. Noboru was not referring to the city itself, but an infamous boarding home in Kyoto, a strict authoritarian children's school merciless in both discipline and teaching. It was the underworld for any parentless boy, a grim dreary fearful dead-end to be stranded at. Many orphans and disowned children were sent there and Yoshiki had told him stories that his cousin in Yokohama had passed on to him. Aiku remembered sitting outside the forge, when Ryuji had finished tutoring them, one afternoon during the last summer, and he and his friend had talked about what it would be like to go up to distant Sapporo during the cold season and to live in the snows and the wilds. Fusami-san had told them that Ryuji was born in the north and his childhood was there. Then the talk turned to Edo and Kyoto and the adolescent daydreams that wondered what it would be like to live in the emperor's palace and wear royal silk and eat meals off plates of silver, while the koi swam outside in the garden ponds. Aiku knew far less about worldly things than Yoshiki, so he just sat and watched, gazing at his friend's perfect lips as they moved, listening intently as the tales of distant fantastic beauty and hardship came forth.
"Kachumi told me that his friend stole rice from the stores," Yoshiki spoke rapidly as he recounted the horrors of the Kyoto school, "and was beaten so hard that you could see the marks on his back for three weeks! Then Satsama said that if you were caught fifteen minutes late for curfew, as one of his cousins were, the house sensei makes you go three days without food. It wouldn't scare me, though. I'd go without food for a whole month if I had to."
Aiku had smiled and looked at his friend. Confident, glowing with youth and pride. He knew that it wouldn't scare Yoshiki, but it would surely bother Aiku. He was physically smaller and slimmer, but also quieter, more reserved. He didn't know how to react to people and situations that threatened and intimidated, but Yoshiki did. Nothing made him pause at all.
"Aikuchi!" Yoshiki had sung, making Aiku jump. Like Noboru, his friend used a nickname, but unlike the older man, this one was far from derisive. Aikuchi meant 'friend' and Yoshiki never used his proper name, but always called him that. The only other person that used a nickname was Fusami, and hers was 'hani-hani' because he was shy. "Aikuchi! You look like you're falling asleep today."
"I'm not sleepy. I was just thinking," murmured Aiku. He had been too busy studying the curve of Yoshiki's shoulders, the line of the neck and bare shoulder blades, and he wondering why on earth the shape fascinated him so much. "I hope we never have to go to such a place. I .. I don't know if I could ... "
Yoshiki had looked at him, suddenly doing so with his full concentration, a very intense gaze. Usually, he was like a kind of contained energy, but scattered between too many things to be truly incisive and too transitory in focus to be able to give any interesting insight on a single topic; most people got annoyed that his train of thought couldn't be followed so easily and gave up trying to converse with him. Yet Aiku found him relaxing and comforting to watch and listen to, and it was the reason why they'd become friends so easily in the first place. Most people didn't know it, but when something of importance to Yoshiki caught his eye or his mind, all the little strands that floated around were drawn together and turned on the target. It could be very unsettling because it felt so intimately intense and no one expected it of Yoshiki, but thankfully Aiku was used to it. It still made him draw back slightly though, caught unaware.
"You don't think you could do it?"
"I don't ... know," replied Aiku worriedly, his brow furrowing. Yoshiki had turned towards him, twisting round so that they were touching at the knee, through the cloth.
"I think you could do it if I were there with you."
Aiku turned the customary red, his face blushing heavily. Yoshiki said things like this about him when he became serious. It embarrassed him even more because Aiku knew it was true. "Yoshiki ... "
"Aikuchi, you know it's true," said his friend. His face was placid and clear, and he was chewing almost absentmindedly on his bottom lip, as he did whenever he concentrated. "You know you'd be okay if I was there as well. We'd both be fine. The senseis wouldn't do anything and we'd be smarter than the cruel ones. Smart enough to survive and live well."
Aiku had stayed silent, not really knowing what to say. At the best of times, he couldn't find his voice, but this was when he got worst. He was really confused - so much so that he could barely think, he felt so scared and embarrassed - but so good inside that he would be protected. However, Yoshiki had sensed his discomfort at the subject of Kyoto and so he then said: "But don't worry. If you don't want to go, I'm sure Master Ryuji will never send us away. You are his best student after all. Master Ryuji says that one day you'll be able to make swords just as well as he can."
Aiku had felt a rush of relief at his friend's reassurance. He reached across and gave him a quick hug. "Thank you, Yoshiki."
"And thank you, Aikuchi," Yoshiki had replied, the intensity fading, the smile restored.
But that wasn't here or now. Here and now was in this shed with Noboru leering at him drunkenly, suggesting that he really would go to Kyoto.
"But ... my place is here," protested Aiku weakly, as he huddled against the far wall. "I cannot leave Ryuji-sensei."
"Ryuji does not want you here," snapped Noboru angrily. "He keeps you and the other boy around because you two are replacements for Fusami's grief. He is not letting you stay because you have skill, he is letting you stay because he has other reasons."
These words made Aiku think of another situation, a rush of memory much fresher than the previous one. He'd arrived early one morning to help restock before going to learn from Ryuji-sensei, and he'd overheard Fusami and Noboru talking heatedly in the other storage shed, while Ryuji himself had gone about his work in the background, either not hearing the argument or not showing any sign of response if he was listening. The subject of dissension amongst his family and apprentices was almost too earthly a matter to break the zen aesthetic that had arisen as he began his preparation for the day's work. His ministrations were well practiced, the ageing limbs seeming to be frail, the white brows suggesting blurry and failing eyesight as the eyes stared out from beneath them, but he moved deliberately and precisely, never missing a beat, tempering, turning, lifting, molding. Aiku had hidden and listened, not wanting to walk in on Fusami and Noboru.
"But they do not belong here!"
"I do not care," cried Fusami, her face twisted in anger. She was a very short and slight woman, but her ire was inverse to her actual dimensions. Although not easy to provoke to wrath, those who dared her were brave souls indeed. "Do you think that it matters to me?"
"Maybe it doesn't matter to you," Noboru had cried in response, "but it does matter to Ryuji."
The petite woman stared at him, immaculately dressed and groomed, even at this early hour, a stark contrast to the grubby Noboru. She seemed to bristle at this statement, drawing herself up to her scant height, although her projected authority made her seem twice the height of the man in front of her. "Who are you to say what matters to Ryuji and what does not? What would you know of the sensei's mind?"
"I know more than you do, woman. I respect his place and I work with him, or I did until my place was stolen from me. I understand him as a fellow. Ryuji wants them to go where they desire, but they stay because they think that he wants them to!"
"And how would you know this, Noboru? Do you read the thoughts now of Aiku and Yoshiki also?" snapped Fusami. "Perhaps you should join the emperor's court and predict the future for him."
Ignoring this remark, Noboru continued on. "Aiku stays because his friend is here, but if that were not so or if Ryuji gave him leave, he would gladly go to Takashoki Iyamesuka in Kyoto. It is something he aspires to."
"Nonsense," sniffed Fusami. "Who would want to go there? Perhaps it is a school with strong standards, but it is not somewhere a child like Aiku would choose for himself."
"Believe that it is true, sister. Aiku has said so, even though I doubt he would admit it if you asked him. He is a quiet boy. I want you to tell Ryuji that you believe it as well and that he should recognise it. If we both do, then he will surely act and sent the boy there."
"I will NOT tell him so, and if you think that me telling Ryuji anything will make him do it or that your word would make any difference, you do not know him as well as you claim. He judges things by himself and he will weigh what you say. So you will have to find another way of winning back your position, maybe on your own merit and not by the virtue of your relations ... brother."
At that point, Noboru had turned away in anger and both of the two had stormed out in opposite directions. Ryuji had lifted his head wordlessly from the mold, pausing in his work for a few seconds. He looked up, straight out the door to Aiku's face as the boy listened from his hiding spot, as if he knew that Aiku had been there all along. Then he merely smiled, the loose skin turning up at the corners of his mouth, the face becoming a mass of benign wrinkles, exuding a silent friendly warmth and knowing wisdom. Then, the moment was gone and he was working again.
Returning once more to the present from his memory, Aiku managed to stutter an answer to Noboru's question.
"But M-Master Ryuji says that I am progressing well. I want to stay and learn more-"
"No, you do not. You want to go to Kyoto, don't you?"
"I .. I .. " mumbled Aiku, his hands feeling clammy. His eyes shifted from Noboru to the room, looking for something, anything, to help him out of this. The older man saw this.
"Don't try to touch anything. Stay there, Busaiku. I cannot have you running away right now, so I have made sure that you will not."
He reached round and pulled from behind the barrels of rice seed, a sword. It wasn't tachi style, like many of the weapons made by Ryuji, but it was a full length katana and a fine example of the art. Noboru turned, a strikingly inelegant figure in contrast to the elegant weapon he was holding. He unsheathed it slowly, taking care not to drag the scabbard along the blade too much. Once it was fully visible, he held it up so that the polished blade shone in the light.
"Now this is what we do, not what you do. We smelt with the coal and the iron sand and wood, until we have the tamahagane. Then we work it until it has the right amount of yield; not too much iron, not too little. We stack several pieces together, wrapped in rice paper and dipped in clay. They are heated and forged, and put into the clay and ash, to slow and stop the loss of yield, and we continue until the rice straw is burnt and the steel is folded many times. It is bent into a curve and a softer piece of steel placed within. Then this bar is heated again and forged into a sunobe, of rough shape.
"We file it some more and then some more until it is ready to be hardened. Yet before this, more clay is applied to give the edge and back the right resilience; then it is cooled in water of the exact required temperature. After that, it is taken to be polished and the work of the smith is done."
Aiku was silent as Noboru marvelled at the sword. "Look at it, Busaiku. Is it not the art of our people? Is it not a true wonder? The tempering has been done right, not too much or too little, so the hamon is a perfect pattern. It is very even. And the shinogi and mune have a balance, when the blade moves through the air, that makes wielding it so easy. The edge steel and boshi are finely sharpened, enough to slice off the ear of a barbarian with only a brief swing. Such a great weapon. Something that you will not ever forge."
"But .. but .. it has Master Ryuji's name on it," whispered Aiku, pointing to the mei, the smith's signature on the handle. "He made it, not you."
The man's expression twisted and turned to stare at Aiku. His grizzled face drew back into a grimace as he hissed at the boy, stepping closer so he was only three feet from Aiku. "You are going to go to that school in Kyoto."
"B-b-but, Noboru-san, I do not w-wan-"
"Yes. Yes, you do. You want to go there and you will tell Ryuji that you want to go there by yourself."
"B-but Master Ryuji says that I ha-"
"You will tell him or you will find your useless little friend, the one that can't think straight .. what's his name? Yes .. Yoshiki ... or you'll find him with many many cuts all over, and then you won't ever get to see him again. But it would be accidental, and no one would think that someone had cut him to hurt him and no one would believe you if you told them it was me."
"Yoshiki! N-no! You can't, Noboru-san! Please ... "
But it was too late. Aiku knew he was going to agree - he had to agree. He felt crushed and beaten, as fragile as the most intricate jade and lapis figurine, a china doll on the edge of the shelf. Noboru dropped the sword carefully to the floor and slid it away with his foot, then he moved until he was right up close. Aiku was overwhelmed by his presence, the stale smell of sake, rice and fish filtering over him, the pungent aroma of his unwashed clothes and poor personal hygiene. The boy was trapped against the wall and Noboru murmured down to him: "But I must also have my way with you before you go to Kyoto, mm? You are too delicate and pretty, so smooth and childlike. You should not go unspoiled without Noboru taking his share. After all, you took something from me, so I'm taking something back from you."
Then, as Noboru breathed all over Aiku, he reached down and began to shove his hands inside the boy's hanten, pulling it loose to reveal the smooth flesh below. The older man's greasy hands started to move, sliding up over Aiku's stomach and then moving down his side, going lower and lower.
"Yes, you are pretty and pure, just like a girl," purred Noburu, his voice slurring slightly between gravel and honey. "I shall have your body just like a girl, as well. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Aiku-kun?"
Aiku shuddered, petrified by the touch of the man in front of him. He could barely make himself enunciate anything, much less a plea for cessation, but he finally managed to make his mouth function enough to stammer hoarsely out the only thing that came to mind: "M-M-Master R-Ryuji s-said I d-don-"
Before he could finish, Noboru pulled his right hand out and slapped Aiku across the face. The force snapped his head to one side painfully, his cheek stinging. "Be quiet about Ryuji and let me do this."
Then he reached back in and back to grope again, this time pushing his whole body up against Aiku, pinioning the boy painfully against the wall. He was about to cry out, when he suddenly heard his own name.
It was a questioning tone, coming from just outside. In a flash, Noboru was off Aiku and wheeling around, standing back and out of view. Yoshiki came casually padding through the doorway, a confused look on his face. He jumped down the steps, consternation painted upon every angle and plane of his visage, not realising Noboru was present, but totally fixated on Aiku and the boy's look of pain. Noboru's fist came up out of the shadows next to the door, connecting with Yoshiki's temple, making a solid smack sound. He jerked sideways and forwards from the momentum of the blow and with a sickening crack, his head struck the edge of the charcoal bin, dropping him immediately and unmovingly to the floor.
Aghast, Aiku trembled and nearly collapsed. Noboru turned swiftly and came back to him, hawk-like, just in time to have Aiku suddenly and unexpectedly begin to struggle. "No! No! What have you done to him? No! Let me help him, Noboru! Let me help him!"
Noboru grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and slammed him against the wall, knocking the wind and protestation out of him. "Sssh, little china doll. I still haven't had my way with you, so don't go making all that noise. You needn't worry about your little friend. He was always the second out of you two, even if he had the quicker tongue. He was never a very quick learner, was he?"
"But Master Ryuji will not-"
Then Noboru lifted Aiku off, turning him around and slamming him up against it again, spread-eagling him frontways upon the wall. "Well, who cares what Ryuji says? I will inherit his smithy someday, not you little brats. But you have to stop struggling and let me just take your sweet purity."
Then Aiku felt Noboru lift his kimono, and the boy closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Noboru moved closer and Aiku felt the man's hands touch him for a second, but then they stopped. There was a faint whooshing sound, and Noboru's hands completely left Aiku's skin. Confused, the boy turned his head to see what was happening. Noboru was just standing there, a puzzled expression on his face. He lifted his left hand up to his left ear. There was only a stump, blood spurting out of the orifice, the severed ear nowhere to be seen. Then, there was a rustle of movement from directly behind Noboru, blocked by Noboru's body, out of Aiku's vision. Without warning, a gleaming blade erupted through the man's stomach. It stayed put for a second, then the sword rapidly disappeared backwards as it was yanked out, the friction of the flesh on the steel causing Noboru to twist sideways and onto his knees, blood fountaining out of the hole in his chest, revealing Yoshiki behind him. He was holding the katana with both hands, gripping it tightly, legs planted firmly askance, elbows bent, one arm up against him, the other turned down the side and behind his body, the blade flat as he'd just pulled it from Noboru's torso. Then, he shifted the emphasis of his grip almost imperceptibly and brought the sword across in a lightning fast horizontal slash, cutting right through the man's neck, separating the head cleanly from the body. Yoshiki quickly reached out with his foot and gave the body a kick in the small of the back, so it fell forward into the corner, spraying blood against the wall and into its own little pool. Amazingly, the body fell so that neither of them had more than a few cursory drops of viscera on their clothes.
Yoshiki looked at the crimson soaked corpse, then at Aiku and raised his eyebrow. "Master Ryuji says that I am a quick learner. Besides, I'm not training to make katana, I'm training to wield them. And .. he did hit me." He rubbed his aching temple thoughtfully. "Only once though."
Aiku didn't say anything. He really couldn't speak. Carefully, Yoshiki ripped a strip of the sash he was wearing, and wiped the blade clean. Then he picked up the saya, the scabbard, and slide the blade home. Placing it reverently on the ground, he then turned, walked across and hugged Aiku. Aiku hugged him back. They didn't let go of each other for a very long time.
Finally, Aiku whispered softly as they were embracing: "He ... he said that he'd kill you and send me to Iyamesuka in Kyoto."
"He didn't do very well, did he?" Yoshiki whispered back. "Look at him now."
Aiku suppressed a small smile. "Well, I was scared."
"Mmm, I know."
"How did you know where to find me?"
There was a little bit of silence before Yoshiki answered. Aiku almost thought it was tinged with a little flustered embarrassment, completely unlike Yoshiki at all. He never got embarrassed over anything. He was always composed.
"Master Ryuji ... he says ... he says to me earlier.. 'have you done your exercises for today, Yoshiki-kun?' and I reply 'Yes, Ryuji-sensei, they were all done by sunset.' Then he says to me 'and what will you spend this evening doing, Yoshiki-kun?' and I reply 'I do not know, Ryuji-sensei, but I imagine I will be at the festival in the gardens with the others'. Then he looks at me very closely, as if he is trying to make me run away in fright, and says 'I am sure you will find what you're looking for there. Be sure not to drink more sake than you can handle, Yoshiki-kun' and I replied to him 'I wouldn't dream of drinking any sake, Ryuji-sensei.' Then he laughed and said to me 'try to be moderate. Too much does bad things to a person.'"
"That doesn't explain much," whispered Aiku.
"Yes, but then I said to him 'what would suggest I spend my evening doing, Ryuji-sensei?' to which he replied 'I think you should spend it with someone who needs you.' Then he told me exactly where to find you, so I came looking here."
Aiku's eyes were uncharacteristically round as he listened in fascination, and then he blinked in veiled thought, phrasing an innocent question. "What did he suggest we should do together?"
Yoshiki's heart beat faster, the hugging becoming extremely comfortable and Aiku's voice suddenly laden with suggestion, the arms around him only a second's worth of action away from being something a thousand times more sensual. All sorts of little signals began shooting through his limbs, his arms and legs, telling him to take action. He licked his lips nervously, pulled back so that they were face to face, and said:
"Well, we could do this ...
I apparently wrote this in 2003. Good heavens, it has been a while. Just thought I'd share this little tidbit with you all. Do enjoy!
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