“I challenge,” the voice said, and Emily stopped at the edge of the ring, turning to look over her shoulder. “My choice of weapon is shinai.”
“There is no need,” she said, rushing to the center of the ring to kneel at Kano’s feet.
“Do not insult me,” he growled. “You will accept my challenge… unless you think it is beneath you.”
“I would rather be your student, Sensei, than your opponent.”
A moment later, she stood on the side of the ring, as Ishikawa and Lt Otani helped her strap on protective equipment. Shinai are practice swords, made of bamboo strips bound together in a single shaft, lighter than a bokken, and with no edge. But in the heat of competition, an errant blow can still do some damage… and Kano did not look like he meant to tap her lightly.
“You should never have entered the ring,” Lt Otani said. “This could have been avoided if you had just let Sgt Tsukino have his victory.”
“Nonsense,” Ishikawa roared. “Moon behaved like a donkey. He deserved what he got, and she fought brilliantly.”
“What are they saying?” Durant asked from behind Lt Otani.
“Dice thinks I’m a fool, and so does Kiku-san.”
“No, Durantu-san,” Ishikawa said, in the best English he could muster. “I think Tenno-san is awe-inspiring. But she is probably in for a beating.”
“I’m sorry for getting you in to this pickle, LT,” Durant said, after Emily glowered at him.
“Pic-kel-u?” Ishikawa said, with one raised eyebrow as he tried to fit his mouth around the word.
“Just like tsukemono,” Lt Otani proposed.
Emily offered an alternative translation: “He means this is a difficult situation.” When Ishikawa still didn’t understand, she said, “I’m screwed.”
“Can you take him?” Oleschenko asked.
“Not if he’s anything like his father,” Emily said. “Besides, kendo is not my best subject.”
“Kano-san was national youth champion as a boy,” Ishikawa said. “He is kyoshi.”
“You knew his father?” Oleschenko asked, looking on as Emily tugged on her equipment to get it to fit better. “How is that possible?”
“It’s a long story, sir. Let’s just say it hasn’t put me in Kano’s good books.”
Emily glanced across the ring as she said this, and saw Kano glowering back at her, while Tsukino tightened the strap on his shoulder guard. Tsukino turned to look at her with a sneer, and then made some remark for Kano’s benefit. But it didn’t seem to have the desired effect, since Kano pushed him away with a sharp word that Emily couldn’t quite make out.
“He is very quick, Tenno-san,” Ishikawa said. “Do not extend your guard, or he will find an opening.”
“Why are you helping me, Dice?” Emily asked. Lt Otani seemed to have the same question written on her face.
“After what you did just now in the ring, I respect you, Tenno-san. And I do not wish you to get hurt. Maybe, if you can hold him off long enough, his temper will pass. Remember, strikes to the top of the head will not hurt as much, because of the helmet.”
When Emily stepped back into the ring, she noticed that the dignitaries had found their way through the ranks to stand next to Sgt Tsukino. Watching the women, something felt out of place, since Soga Jin and Heiji Gyoshin seemed rather too refined for the company of someone as coarse as Moon. “There’s a story behind that,” she thought.
Kano raised the shinai above his head, jodan-style, once she seemed ready, and Emily held hers over one shoulder. His movement was sudden and precise, as the shinai glanced off the top of her helmet, and the Jietai roared their approval. In fact, she hadn’t moved at all, not even to block, preferring merely to watch and breathe, to listen to her heart—and his—and admire the stillness out of which his stroke moved.
But his heart was not perfectly still; she could sense this. Turbulence disrupted his spirit, and she wondered about the source of it. Was it his irritation with Tsukino, or with her? Or perhaps some still-unresolved feelings about his father?
A second stroke slipped past her guard, and caught her on the shoulder, above the collarbone. If she hadn’t been wearing the guard, even the bamboo would have broken the bone—and Dice was right; it hurt much more than the head-strike. But Kano’s technique was excellent, and she would gladly let him hit her again, despite the pain, just for the privilege of seeing it up close.
When the third stroke came, she’d moved to block it, to protect her neck, but she couldn’t prevent it from scoring, a diagonal stroke across her chest. The Jietai cheered, and she bowed to him, before turning to leave the ring.
“Stop right there,” he cried out in a loud voice, more like a growl than speech. “Do you take me for a fool? Am I not worthy of your best effort?”
“You have my highest respect, Sensei,” she said, with another bow, and began to untie her equipment.
“That is not good enough. I am not a child, to be put off with easy falsehoods. Take up your shinai and face me again.”
“Do not seek this fight, Sensei. There is nothing to be gained in it.”
“Fight,” he roared one more time at her.
“Fine,” she muttered, and tossed the last of her protective gear aside, then picked up the shinai and stepped to the center of the ring.
He glowered at her and said, “Do you think I will not hit you without padding?”
Emily said nothing, and held her shinai out front, chudan-style, pointed directly at his face, but not well-positioned to protect her head and shoulders from an overhead stroke. His puzzlement was easy to see, and she could feel the question in his heart as she let her breath move in and out of her body: “Can I hurt her?” Part of him wanted to cause her physical pain, to work out his frustrations by beating her bloody. But she sensed another train of thought somewhere inside him, a doubt that threatened to pull down the entire edifice of his resentments, and perhaps of his confidence, too.
With a heart that could find no stillness, Kano hesitated, and Emily lunged forward, striking him under the chin, and the restless crowd fell suddenly silent. He stumbled back, stunned and bewildered by her stroke, and tore off his helmet to stare at her.
The shinai pointed to the sky above his head a second time, and again he could not bring his hands to focus in the suddenness of an unclouded mind; and Emily brought her shinai down inside his stroke, parrying it and slashing across his chest in one fluid movement. The entire crowd gasped.
In one final effort, and completely unable to find any quiet place inside, Kano charged at her, swinging wildly at her head. It only took a small step to evade his stroke, and she slashed at him, hard, a sideways stroke across the belly, just below the lacquered, bamboo do that protected his chest—“He’ll feel that, even through the padding,” she thought—and as his momentum carried him past her, she pivoted and brought the shinai down on a shoulder and diagonally across his back. In a real fight, with steel swords instead of bamboo, those two strokes would have ended him, and everyone watching around the ring seemed to know it.
He came to a stop a few steps away, and turned to face her, his eyes wild. But before he could act on another hectic impulse, the fury in them seemed to subside as he looked at her. Tiny, slight, a mere woman with no armor, and yet she’d bested him in a fight he’d insisted on.
Emily dropped to her knees, and said, “Forgive me, Sensei.”
“You cheated,” he hissed at her. “Taking off the armor gave you an advantage.”
“Wearing it gave you the advantage.”
“How did you know I would hesitate?”
“It is easy to see that your sword has never taken a life.”
“And you have?” he roared, his anger rekindled. He raised the shinai above her, and she lowered her head beneath it.
“Yes,” she said, in a tiny voice that perhaps no one outside the ring could hear.
“And you think that makes you better than me?”
“No, Sensei,” she whispered. “It makes me much, much worse.”
Her words froze him for an instant, and as he stood over her, the expression in his eyes softened. He glanced at the crowd, shook his head in disgust, and threw down the shinai.
“Get up, Tenno-san. Thank you for the lesson,” he said in a gruff voice, before bowing and walking towards his men, who cringed at the expression on his face.
Standing in the ring by herself, Emily had a moment to reflect on the events of an hour she could only wish to have back again. Oleschenko pushed her to challenge Tsukino, but he hadn’t ordered it. She could have refused, and even Durant’s pleading shouldn’t have influenced her, and she seriously doubted his nose felt any better for her efforts.
“Whose brilliant idea was this?” she heard a familiar voice bark out, and turned to see Oleschenko standing at attention for a dressing down. “Operation Seabreeze depends on cooperation, Captain,” said Admiral Crichton, who was flanked by three staff officers, while Deputy Defense Minister Saito and Colonel Kamakura observed from a few feet away, nodding and whispering to each other—though Emily figured they understood nothing of what the Admiral said, beyond the temperature of his tone of voice.
“Just how did you think putting her in the ring would seal their cooperation?” Crichton continued, with one of those questions it was wisest not to try to answer.
In public, the Admiral was in no mood to hear an explanation, and Oleschenko had none to offer. Later, in a private office on loan for the purpose, he allowed Emily to fall on her sword, so to speak.
“It was my fault, sir.”
“No, Admiral,” Oleschenko interrupted. “I ordered her into the ring. I thought unit cohesion depended on it. After the way their man had…”
“You’re not helping your cause, Captain,” Crichton said in a preemptory tone.
“It wasn’t an order,” Emily said. “It was a request, and I should have refused. But in the heat of the moment… I gave in.”
“Oleschenko, see if you can patch things up with their commander. I want a word with Tenno in private.”
“But, sir,” he stammered out. “I need her to translate.”
“You’ll manage without her,” Crichton roared. “Show some initiative, man.” After Oleschenko closed the door, he turned his attention to Emily. “Kneeling? In front of a vanquished opponent?”
“Marines don’t kneel, not to anyone… not ever.”
“I was only trying to repair the damage.”
“You looked just like your father, when you sidestepped him and brought the bamboo-thingy down across his shoulders. And he’s like the best they have, right?”
“It wasn’t a fair fight, sir. I cheated.”
“There’s no such thing as a fair fight, Lieutenant. Hold your head high when you win a fight.” Crichton paused to contemplate Emily for a moment, then continued: “In all the time I’ve know you, I’ve never seen you like this, so… I don’t know, lacking in confidence. You haven’t lost your edge, have you?”
“It’s just that, Capt Kano and I… we have some history, sir.”
“No, sir. But that night, you remember, at the Academy, the man who died in the parking garage trying to protect me and Stacie, and the others… he was Kano’s father.”
Crichton whistled and ran a hand through some thinning gray hair, then stared at her for another long moment. “I guess that means Oleschenko won’t make any headway with him, will he?”
“No, sir. Probably not. Kano’s not a talker, and a few beers with the guys likely won’t sway him either. But if you let me…”
“Fine. It’s in your hands, Tenno. But don’t let him forget who won today.”
“I didn’t really win, sir,” she tried to tell him one more time, but he raised a hand to stop her.“Dismissed.”