Still wanting to fight, Sora begged Chimatsu to continue.
Seeing her determination, and going against his better judgment for the sake of her father, he agreed.
The winter months flew by in a haze of pain, adrenalin, and feelings of inadequacy.
His litany of her wrongs seemed endless:
You’re fighting in anger.
Your defense is lacking.
You’ve been captured.
You’ve been killed.
One day he did not come out to train her.
She practiced her forms alone, considering it a test of some kind, looking at the door to his swaybacked house, but it didn’t open.
The next day she practiced her weaponry, knowing he was watching, but nothing happened to make him open the door.
The next day she practiced longer, but he still stayed inside.
Enough of this!
She went to confront him as the day was ending.
She raised her fists to pound the door, only to find it was already open a crack.
A little thrill of fear made her peer inside, thinking she might find him dead.
He was sitting in front of a large, warm fire, drinking tea and eating a bowl of rice and some savory fish.
Her mouth watered and her stomach growled.
He knew she was there, but didn’t acknowledge her; he offered no food nor a seat by the fire.
“What’s going on, sensei?”
He set his bowl and cup down on a tray, then leaned back and steepled his fingers under his chin as he gazed into the fire but spoke to her.
“It’s simple enough; I can no longer teach you.”
“But I’ve been practicing!”
He shook his head. “To no foreseeable end. You lack skill, Sora, not heart. But in an actual battle, you’d be among the first to fall.
He sighed. “I’ve already written to your father. I will take no more of his money, and waste no more of my time, or yours.”
“So you’re saying…”
“What I’ve said before: the life of a warrior is not for you.”
“So what am I to do?”
“Rest, heal, spend the night, and in the morning, return to your father’s house.”
“I meant about my fighting.” She moved in front of him, blocking the fire’s warmth.
His eyes seemed to look through her as if she wasn’t there at all; her world was shrinking, and he wouldn’t even look at her.
“What am I to do about my fighting?” she asked again, her voice hitching.
He surmised that she needed to hear him say it, and as much as he didn’t want to, her refusal to leave forced it out of him.
He looked at her then, his eyes sad and somber, the firelight dancing in their depths; to her he looked like an ancient god in transition.
“Fight no longer. Marry, and raise children, a son perhaps; one who can take the road you seek.
“Your skills are adequate, but they need to be superior, and for that, you have not the skill.”
Her fists clenched, she began to pace. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong about this! About me!”
Again he shook his head, the fiery eyes tracking her.
“No, I am not wrong. Here is what I am: too old, and too slow to help you improve.
“The truth is, Sora, I’ve enjoyed your company, but as a student of the killing arts, you will be the only student I have failed.”
That made her stop, her face betraying shock, and she spluttered and swallowed whatever she’d been about to say in protest.
He rose, shifting his weight like a log in the fire, poured her a cup of tea and shambled over to give it to her while he gave her advice.
“Abandon this road, and live a longer, happier life as a civilian. The warrior’s path is not for everyone to walk.”
She took the proffered cup because she needed something to focus on to keep from screaming, and because she didn’t know what else to do.
All this time, he’d not said a kind word, or did a kind deed, but now that he was done with her he was almost gentle, and even a little sad.
It made no sense.
He returned to his chair, and indicated with a small sweeping gesture toward the pot that she could help herself to some food.
She looked at him, but his eyes were closed now and she couldn’t tell if he was sleeping.
Emotions fought within her, but there was too much and nothing more to say.
The bowl steamed in the cooling evening air as she sat on the steps, watching the shadows lengthen on the ground.
Swarms of gnats and small butterflies played around high stalks of flowers in the persimmon rays, and the birds began their evensongs.
She concentrated on the beauty of the scene in front of her, and felt the rhythm of her heart slowing.
Eating without tasting, she finally finished everything and left the bowl and cup on the steps.
On her way back to the cottage she began to turn Chimatsu’s words over in her mind.
Inside, looking around at the sparse furnishings there came a realization that as harsh and uncomfortable as it had been, she’d endured it, and that was something.
If nothing else he’d released a side of her she didn’t know she possessed.
He said the warrior’s path wasn’t for her, but maybe it just wasn’t a straight one. The truth was, she loved the feel of the weapons, loved the hum and swish as she sliced the air to chunks and the straw men to ribbons.
It thrilled her.
And yet, for all her joy, Chimatsu had basically shown her that even at the end of his fighting days, over before Sora was born, he could still beat her; he would brook no excuses as to his reputation.
“Your opponent doesn’t care who you are.” Splat!
Still, his name struck fear into hearts of enemies and allies alike; he’d went through both with equal alacrity and aplomb. In his time it was considered an honor to fight beside him, and a death sentence to fight against him.
He told her she would never be worthy of being considered either, and in the cold, empty embrace of this strange place in a strange land, alone where no one could see, she allowed herself to cry.