“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning on defeat.”
But Takeshi would not stop crying. His chocked sobs were drowned in the faint stirring of autumn leaves. The wooden katana dangled in his trembling grip, and pain flared across the back of his hand where Nagawa-sama had struck, unrelenting and much unlike the boy he had come to know. Takeshi regarded his young Lord’s katana and found a vein of blood running along the edge, where it dripped onto the leaves below. His eyes trailed upwards, but stopped and would go no further. He could not meet his Lord’s gaze, paralyzed in shame as he was.
The wind faded, and in the wake of the stilled leaves, a silence settled. Nagawa-sama leveled his katana, and the faint ruffle of his noble sleeves sounded as they slid backwards and revealed bandages soaked in sinuous trails of blood. And yet the katana was poised before him, unwavering. It only furthered Takeshi’s shame; heat buzzed throughout his body, highest in his cheeks and ears as if under a fever.
“Ready yourself!” Roared Nagawa-sama, but it only drew more tears.
“It’s no good, my Lord!” Moaned Takeshi, sinking to his knees. The ground began to rock back and forth gently, as if the earth was trying to soothe him, but it only roused nausea and he reeled forwards, dropping his katana and gathering the brittle leaves in his hands gingerly, lest the bright hues of orange red and yellow suddenly burst into flame. But as he regarded them in the ensuing quiet, a slow surety filled him. At length, he balled his hands into fists and crushed the leaves into chunks and powder. Letting them fall to the floor, a dark chuckle escaped him. His eyes went distant, and the expression of panic that had taken hold of him since the beginning of their training was replaced by one of the utmost serenity. The words that came felt unlike his own, as if magic had been cast on his tongue and unknowingly spoke the words of another. “Brittle as autumn…” He mused.
A blur appeared in Takeshi’s peripherals, bringing him back to the present. He grabbed his katana and jumped to his feet, desperately deflecting as many blows as he could and yet catching most. As the flurry ended, Takeshi let his katana droop once again, panting for air. “Nagaw—"
“Complaining won’t get my kingdom back!” And Nagawa-sama threw his sword into flurry of stabs. Sharp pain shoot through Takeshi as if being struck by a group of arrows, and he stumbled backwards. The next strike came from above, and Takeshi barely had time to dodge by diving to the side, rolling in the leaves and casting them up like embers of a fire.
Nagawa-sama lowered his katana and marched over to Takeshi, the leaves sighing against his feet. Takeshi scrambled backwards. “No, my Lord, please! No more!” Takeshi backed into a tree, and with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, he raised helpless hands to cover his face as Nagawa-sama arced the katana, readying himself for a Crescent Strike. “You would harm a helpless man?” Cried Takeshi desperately, and he shut his eyes, readying himself for the pain.
A faint whoosh sounded as the katana sped towards him, and Takeshi whimpered like a dog. In that moment, spurred by irrational fear, he was sure he would die.
But death did not come, nor any pain.
He opened his eyes.
The katana hovered a hair’s length from his temple.
“We fight…” A hesitant quiet. “We fight because time is our enemy. Each day, they grow stronger. My mother, my father…” Two droplets fell before Takeshi. He looked up and found his Nagawa-sama crying. His katana clattered to the ground. The hard face he had donned faltered, and in that moment, Takeshi felt he was not sitting before his Lord, but a helpless child, lost and afraid. A deep nostalgia stirred in him, regarding those eyes; he could see flames the colour of blood flickering like the tongue of a snake, and behind them, an unfathomable emptiness that swelled like the dark between stars.
Nagawa-sama reared those empty eyes towards the darkening sky and spoke in a whisper “I can hear them at night… calling my name. They ask me ‘why?’, and I hear them crying. If the dream goes on… I feel her.” Nagawa-sama ran a hand along the bandages, a silhouette against the burning sky. A breeze passed them by, and leaves cascaded along the training ground in sighing echoes of her voice, redolent the small hours of morning years past as her lullabies flitted through the doorway to his Lord’s room, where Takeshi had stood guard.
“She had the most beautiful voice,”
Nagawa-sama looked at him quickly. “You remember?” But Takeshi was frowning, trying to grasp other memories that glimmered in the wake of the one he had just uncovered. At length, he sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Nagawa-sama,”
“Don’t call me that,” his face hardened again. “I am Lord of nothing. Yet.” He picked his katana back up and considered it a long while. “But I will get my kingdom back.”
Suddenly the pain wrought in every muscle in his body returned with renewed vigour. The air around them suddenly felt much colder, and in the setting sun the colour of the leaves lost their burning glow in favour of darker hues redolent of winter. He was reminded of that unsettling emptiness in his Lord’s eyes only moments ago – how it seemed to consume everything like a silent whirlpool.
Everything was in pain. Everything was dying. Takeshi could feel it in and around him as if he had transcended to a higher plane where the state of the world was revealed in all its terrible truths. The words that had lingered so long in his mind came out his mouth without a moment’s hesitation. “One fool and his Lord cannot hope to reclaim what they’ve taken from us.”
“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning on defeat.” Said Nagawa-sama, but he did not sound so sure this time. “We… we’ll find a way.”
But Takeshi’s silence spoke volumes.
“Then what do I do!” Nagawa-sama fell to his knees, the gone in his eyes. The remaining emptiness delved into Takeshi with such agonizing pathos that tears welled in his own eyes. “Tell me!”
“Nagawa-sam—” but the young Lord was shaking his head. He dropped his katana and buried his face in Takeshi’s sleeve, sobbing. “What do I do! Why won’t you tell me, like you used to!”
Takeshi stopped in the middle of stroking the young Lord’s hair. The blanks in his memory seemed to giggle sardonically as he grasped for the phantom ropes they cast, promising remembrance. He shut his eyes. “If only,” he resumed stroking Nagawa-sama’s hair. “but I am not the man you knew. I have stolen him from you. He’s left you this fool of a man that weeps and complains, but what else am I to do? You tell me, Nagawa-sama – tell me what I should do? I am no good to you like this – no good and better off dead!”
“No!” Nagawa-sama looked up at Takeshi desperately. “Not dead - no! Dying would mean he has no chance of returning.”
“Then what do I do?”
“Wait. As long as it takes…”
It was a moonless night.
They sat, waiting in dark as the unfathomable emptiness chipped at their hearts.