A new page, a new inkwell. My brush continues to dance across the paper, singing the praise of Takeda Ryuji. I have prepared a fresh pot of tea, and the first cup is ready: Spring fragrance, yielding character, dark leaves, fine cup. Steaming pleasantly. The aroma of tea is healthy for the replenishment of ki, and indeed, the mysteries of breath, blood, and body will be relevant as I continue recording the exploits of my Lord and master.
The educated reader will know that all living things are suffused with a mystic force, and that scholars know it by different names, attempting to explain its nature. Some think of it as breath; others fragrance; others, the spiritual equivalent of blood. This humble scholar makes no claim to grasp its fleeting essence, for he knows only a little of the doctor’s arts. But it is the case that the Akatsuki study it extensively, and claim intimate understanding thereof. Thus, having accepted young Lady Ootori as her pupil, Lady Akiyama must now explain these secrets and awaken the potential at rest within the girl.
Young Lady Ootori, dutiful and eager, listened to her words. Lady Akiyama would soon put the lecture into practice, bidding her young student to control her ki and channel it into awareness. The lessons progressed quickly. In her brief time at Peach Blossom Mountain, I should say young Lady Ootori acquired at least a season’s worth of training.
As for Takeda Ryuji, he participated in schooling the youngest monks, who needed but the most basic training. Among these monks was a twelve-year old apprentice named Juro, a short, skinny boy with frail arms and legs. Lord Takeda saw that there was fire in his eyes, and taught him the Takeda way of fighting. It is this humble scholar’s understanding that he learned very quickly, flawlessly imitating a sweeping kick after just one lesson. This drew the attention of the senior monk Kenshin, who fervently disagreed about the correct approach to battle, and thought my Lord and master’s way too formless.
Lord Takeda spoke much with Kenshin over the days, and imparted wisdom upon him. Kenshin attempted to argue against this wisdom with his staff, but Lord Takeda used a pair of chop-sticks, a bowl, and a secret grappling technique that an old scholar taught him in his youth to win the argument. Kenshin would meditate upon his defeat for some time, but was enlightened to the virtue and talent of my Lord and master, and no longer disrespected him.
My Lord and master stayed on the mountain for many days, studying, praying, and teaching. During this time he met few outsiders, with the exception of one Captain Kurosawa from the House Asai camp. This Kurosawa fellow delivered news to the Abbot, and greatly respected the name of Takeda Ryuji. He said many of his men were eager to see the great warrior in action, and one particular man – Katsuro – had been boasting that he could defeat my Lord and master. Captain Kurosawa was eager to see the braggart proven wrong.
Now, while time passed in the Peach Blossom Mountain monastery, three things happened in the world outside it. This humble scholar will attempt to explain what transpired, as clearly as he can:
Umon, the drunkard, made his way toward the Peach Blossom Mountain with the Star of Strength hidden in its magical urn. He had the misfortune of running into some of House Asai’s men as these went searching for Nichiren, and somehow an altercation occurred. With his belly full of sake Umon fought valiantly, but the men called for reinforcements. Greatly outnumbered, Umon hurled the Star of Strength into the woods, fearing the Asai might otherwise capture it. He was then beaten unconscious and bound with thick, sturdy ropes. The men had not seen him throw the weapon, and thought the empty urn was worthless. Therefore, they left it lying where it was.
Because Umon had sought to keep the Star secret, he had fought with his fists and injured almost twenty men, but killed none. Therefore he was not executed, but bound in the Asai camp and whipped until the skin on his back split open and fresh blood poured from his body. Lord Takeda Ryuji, when he heard of this, thought in his heart that he should save his brother from humiliation – but was advised against it, for the Asai might attack the temple if provoked, and if they learned of Umon’s importance, his life would surely be forfeit. Therefore Lord Takeda found himself forced to wait for the Asai to bring him to the monastery at the end of his sentence.
That was the first event of relevance. The second was that Lady Akiyama left the monastery under the cover of darkness, intending to retrieve young Lady Ootori’s precious gown. The bald weasel Nichiren had casually sold it to a lowly comfort woman at the nearby seedy teahouse, and Lady Akiyama saw it unfitting that the young Lady Ootori should be apart from her belongings. She took Satsuko with her, and entered the establishment wearing the disguise of a comfort woman serving tea and sake. Satsuko waited outside.
But as the educated reader will know, the name of any spirit creature holds a small measure of power. Lady Akiyama unwisely let slip the name of her traveling companion, and when the visiting soldiers called out for Satsuko, she answered. Fortunately, she chose to enter in the form of a comely woman in a snow white kimono, and not as a snarling white wolf – but with her noble and beautiful bearing, the soldiers assumed her to be a Lady of high standing.
Beware the web of lies! One might as easily snare oneself as the enemy! As Lady Akiyama tried to explain why two beautiful women would travel alone at night, their association with Lord Takeda became known to the men. In return Lady Akiyama learned a great deal about the Asai. She found out that young master Asai had picked a favorite courtesan, new to the area, skilled in all the arts both great and small. This courtesan bore the name Haruka, and occupied most of his time – indeed, it seemed he had fallen in love with her. Lady Akiyama also learned that House Asai had three captains: Abe, the archer, Kurosawa, the cavalryman, and Sho, the infantry leader. Abe had already positioned men on the slopes of Peach Blossom Mountain, in the event that the monks should go back on their promise.
(The reader will recall, that the Enlightened Sage had picked a lucky day for Lady Asai to visit the monastery and retrieve the Blade of Destiny hidden there. Much as Captain Abe suspected, this was deceit!)
Lady Akiyama did retrieve young Lady Ootori’s gown from the comfort woman who had shamelessly claimed it. She was even kind enough to leave some money in return. My Lord and master would later confront her about why his name had been mentioned in a seedy tea-house, for which she deeply apologized.
The third thing that happened, was that a mass of refugees made their way toward Peach Blossom Mountain from the eastern Takeda lands. These are not relevant to the events that would soon transpire, and I therefore leave them from the records for now.
Tea has grown slightly too cold. I fear I have been to enveloped in my writing. Flavor is excellent. Fragrance already autumn.
As the day dawned for the Asai to claim their prize, Lord Takeda, Lady Akiyama, young Lady Ootori and the okami Satsuko had been staying at Peach Blossom Mountain for all of nine days. The leaders of House Asai rode up the slopes of the mountain, ready to receive the sacred Star of Strength. They brought Umon with them, bound with thick ropes, returning him to the monastery as a peace offering. By now they had found the bodies of Nichiren and the dead Asai men; they suspected Umon of the crime, but did not want to punish him further for fear it might displease the Abbot.
Umon, having been released from the ropes, told the Abbot he had spilled all his sake in the woods, near a certain abandoned shack. He then retreated to recover from his injuries and eat a decent meal.
Now, these were the visiting members of House Asai: There was the cunning Lady Asai, in a ceremonial gown. There was her younger brother, Asai Shinji, a spoiled brat in warrior’s hakama. There was their advisor Asai Noburu, the faithless rat. And beside these, there were Captains Abe and Kurosawa.
As the procession entered the temple proper, Lady Asai approached the great bronze Buddha and reached down to withdraw the Blade, supposedly hidden beneath it. Instead, she withdrew a dry branch.
Asai Noburu was outraged and insulted. He swore vengeance against Peach Blossom Mountain and that the Asai men would burn the monastery to the ground in search of the Blade! But Lady Asai merely left the temple without another word, mounted her horse, and rode off down the mountain, leaving young master Asai Shinji in charge. Asai Noburu pressured him to call for an attack, but my Lord and master spoke with them both, and bade him stay his hand for an hour. This Asai Shinji accepted, and together with the captains, the two men returned to their camp to ready the men.
Now! When Lady Asai withdrew that dry branch, she understood fully in what way she had been tricked. Remembering Umon’s great strength, his exile, and what he had said about his sake, the deception became clear to her. On the swiftest horse she rode for the abandoned shack in the woods! But no Earthly horse is as swift as an okami, and on Satsuko’s back Lord Takeda rode ahead. He reached the shack and found the urn, but walked past it in search of the Star of Strength itself.
So great was Umon’s strength, that when he threw the massive weapon it cracked a stone upon landing, and lodged itself there. Lord Takeda’s strength rivals that of the legendary Kintaro, but even he could not move the Star one inch from its resting place! He used his own invulnerable Blade of Destiny to hack away at the stone, but to no avail – the heavy Star of Strength would only move if seized by its chosen Sword-Saint!
Yet Umon had been able to carry the Star even before he had been chosen. Recalling this, Lord Takeda came to think of the magical urn, in which the Blade was kept. This urn was inscribed with a hundred and eight dragon-and-phoenix characters, and their magic permitted the monks to move the Star of Strength with ease. He hurried his steps back toward the shack, but too late! Just as he reached the urn, Lady Asai caught up.
This humble scholar must now clarify the identity of this talented onna-bugeisha. She held the honor of being the elder niece of Lord Asai, and had been trained in the art of the powerful Kiai Shout that only the Asai household can cultivate. Because of this, it was a rarity to hear her speak. Her loyalty and sense of honor was such that she would never disobey an order, even though she knew in her heart that the Star of Strength was not her destiny. Her uncle had commanded that she should not show her face in his presence without it, and so, her honor bound her to this futile task. Therefore, she drew her blade to slay Takeda Ryuji.
But Takeda Ryuji drew faster. With a single slash, he cut apart any hope she might have of obtaining the fabled Star.
My Lord and master destroyed the priceless urn, cutting it in two with his Blade of Destiny. It exploded in a shower of shards, and with it, any hope of moving the Star from this place was lost. Only Umon would be able to shift it. This Takeda Ryuji explained, and took Lady Asai to the mighty weapon. She tried seven or eight times to move it, even though she knew it was in vain.
Realizing that she had finally failed in her task and that the fool’s errand was over, Lady Asai once more drew her blade. Let it be known that she did not hesitate to do the honorable thing! But before she could go through with the act, my Lord and master stopped her. He stripped her of her sword, her gown, and her hair-pins; anything that might mark her as an onna-bugeisha of House Asai. Thereafter, he placed her on Satsuko, and rode back toward the mountain. (This humble scholar would certainly never shame Lady Asai by suggesting she willingly surrendered these things! Certainly Lord Takeda must have overpowered her, forcibly keeping her from honoring her uncle.)
Meanwhile, Lady Akiyama and the monk Kenshin had been readying the monastery for battle. As for the Enlightened Sage, he had gone up to the roof in search of a suitable cloud, upon which to imbue his transcendent Breath. For such was the mastery of the Abbot’s ki, that he could cause great winds to blow, or rain to fall, or snow to melt. He would later show this by breathing forth a heavy rainstorm.
Lord Takeda returned with his prisoner, and placed her in the hospice. Lady Akiyama appointed young Lady Ootori to watch over her, thinking it best her warden be a woman and having none other at hand. Then the two warriors climbed onto Satsuko’s back, and the swift okami carried them down the mountain. They approached the Asai encampment on foot.
Young master Asai invited them courteously into his tent. Therefore they put aside their weapons, and entered. But as they stepped inside the tent, it was as if Lady Akiyama’s blood had turned to ice and her bones had filled with lead! Her eyes locked with the courtesan Haruka, whom she recognized as one of the deadliest ninja ever to bear the Akatsuki name. Speechless, she could only stand there while my Lord and master addressed Asai Shinji.
Despite being an ill-mannered brat, Asai Shinji possessed wisdom beyond his years. He found it distasteful and dangerous to burn down the monastery. My Lord Takeda Ryuji informed him that this line of thinking was correct. But Asai Noburu, that faithless rat, inflamed his passions and tried to wake the fire of war within his heart. Therefore Takeda Ryuji found it necessary to tip his hand, and revealed that both Umon and Lady Akiyama were Chosen of Heaven, and more than a match for the Asai army with the warrior-monks at their side.
Asai Shinji, terrified of the prospect of fighting two Sword-Saints, stood up to that faithless rat and shouted him down. They would retreat to his uncle’s palace and inform him that the Blade was no longer held at Peach Blossom Mountain, but that some drunkard monk had gotten it. Thereafter, they would place a price on Umon’s head and thus obtain the precious Star given time.
Pleased with this answer, and knowing that Umon could defend himself against any enterprising ronin, Takeda Ryuji accepted Asai Shinji’s offer of peace. Let it be known that Asai Shinji bade my Lord and master to grant his sister a swift and honorable death, so that she would not have to live with the shame of failure. (This humble sage does not wish to speak ill of the dead, but will note that with his sister’s execution, Asai Shinji would free himself of any responsibility for the failure at Peach Blossom Mountain. As the reader will see, this convenient escape from being dishonored did not aid Asai Shinji for very long.)
As soon as Takeda Ryuji and his entourage left the Asai camp, Lady Akiyama turned to him and quickly explained that the courtesan Haruka was in fact Shiruzen Haruka, one of the deadliest assassins in Yashima. She had not dared mention it in young Lord Asai’s tent, for fear it would outrage him. In the teahouse, she had heard he loved and treasured her higher than any other possession.
Alarmed, Lord Takeda turned back toward the camp, but too late. A high-pitched scream marked the end of Asai Shinji’s life. It had evidently been in the Akatsuki’s interest that the Peach Blossom Monastery should be destroyed.
Asai Noburu, infuriated and left without a master, immediately ordered the men to attack. And so it was that the siege on Peach Blossom Mountain would turn into a battle.
But now, I fear, my ink is running dry. I have been neglecting my tea, and I think almost half a cup has gone cold in the pot. It is time for me to set aside my brush. Perhaps a stroll through the garden will liven up my limbs, before I sit down to pen the account of what transpired in the battle.