FACING me were forty highly skilled guards, hand selected by The Emperor. Identical, except for height, faces hidden behind faceplates, their armour a combination of black and white. The strong points were the curiass protecting their chests, the thick cuisse around their upper legs, spaulders around their shoulders and the horned helmets.
My sword yet sheathed was eager to begin. I resisted the undying urge to grip the handle, the tsuka bearing the worn grooves of my own hand, a testament to years of practice.
The Emperor sat beyond the guards, up a flight of ninety nine steps, his lucky number. In the hall before him, I was nothing, dwarfed by the number of his sworn protectors. They stood menacingly, casting shadows far larger than befitted men of their courage, helped by the burning pyres behind them that lined the grand stairway.
Unflinching, the guards stood with their feet apart, perfectly balanced, hands resting on their sword handles, the lacquered sayas failing to hide blades sharp enough they could cut falling silk. They stood in formation, a half moon arcing outwards from the base of the Emperor’s stairs three deep in parts.
Pacing backwards and forwards in front of them, I absorbed every detail. Every weakness, every strength. Who was standing heavy? Who was shifting their weight? Whose armour hadn’t been varnished or cleaned? I would punish them. If they were prepared to forgo small details, I would punish them further.
My confidence strengthened knowing I was more agile, my vision and senses would be unimpeded by cumbersome helmets and the weight of armour.
I stopped momentarily. I looked up at the Emperor in his seat of arrogance, his hands either side of him on the arms of the throne. He would hear me. And soon enough.
As I paced once more, I glanced from the corners of my eyes as I put my hand an inch from my sword. A momentary shift, muscle movements. But not in every guard. I was building up a picture in my head, scanning, probing, and noting every chink in their armour mental or physical. The picture was not yet complete.
The guards changed every eight hours. Of fifty men, some, beyond doubt needed to piss and shit. In twenty shakes of an eagles tail, the new guards would replace them. How stupid the Emperor was. If I were sat on the throne, I would change the guards one by one, allowing for a mixture of fresh guards and old and never leaving the stairway exposed during the changeover. Although of course, the presence of one hundred, not fifty samurai in the great hall, was enough to deter even the most brazen of fools.
I continued to pace, warming up. While my limber body would be ready, the ligaments, joints and tissues of the army before me would be slow to react, stiff from standing like statues. I highly doubted more than a handful of men would know, let alone be capable of using the Standing Crane meditative technique, used to control blood flow.
I noticed a warrior on the inner ring, shorter than the rest by two hands. It would be easy to make the mistake of assuming they were inferior in combat. After all they were chosen to protect the Emperor, the most honourable position in all of Japan. But every selection process had it’s imperfections. Each warrior was only as good as the ones they killed in order to be selected. I observed the short one, this time catching a glimpse of their eyes. I squinted, trying to make out what lay beyond the faceplate in the shadow of the helmet. Wide eyes. Diamond like. There was a woman in their midst! Only one had ever succeeded before. Why had I not heard of her? Wasn’t I paying my sources enough?
Never mind. Focus! There were thirty nine others to scrutinise.
Some servants scurried around on the periphery, coming and going through open doors, bearing food and freshly pressed clothing. Focus!
I was beginning to grow warm underneath my black kimono. My cheeks were still cool, a good sign my blood was not boiling yet. A hot headed man, dies quickest in battle. Monitoring the guards every move I walked more slowly, floating across the cold floor, my tabi left behind in my room as poor a choice of footwear as it was possible to have given my plans. I had contemplated leaving my montsuki behind as well, but I did not want to appear overly conspicuous. Padding around in front of the guards barefoot was dangerous enough as it was. And so I strolled, back and forth, head down, my long black hair bouncing diligently behind me, glancing off my back.
Nearly a fatal mistake! My hand instinctively went within a skins breadth of touching the handle. I heard the squeak of leather, the shift of weight, of gloves clenching.
Preparing myself, I would walk some more, to and fro, until their tension was allayed, until my cheeks bore the pink mists of blood, yet before that first bead of sweat appeared.
Armpits, knees, palms, face and groin. I visualised my sword piercing them, like a butcher, knowing what to cut and where, the same flesh I had dismembered and skewered a thousand times before if not five, softly, softly, every man who had crossed my path and was left to live, could console themselves knowing the thinnest steel blade in all of Japan had delivered parts of them to the ground so quickly, to roll on the forest floors, so quickly as if by sorcery, that they might live to an old age simply by recounting the tale for a living.
My sword maker had made my blade an extra half inch longer, but the same weight as my previous. In my hands it was certain to be the end for anyone. Their deaths so quick, they would not remember seeing any silver.
I stopped in line with the middle of the guards. Perhaps eight paces away. No, seven and a half. In these moments it is imperative to be exact. Turning my back on them I stood still, closing my eyes, picturing the Emperor, feeling the cold steps beneath my feet, two at a time, until I stood facing him with bleeding blade.
I turned back around as if in slow motion, my blood a good temperature, my feet gaining speed. I shed my monstsuki jacket, and ran straight at the first guards in my path. My sword was ready. And from the breast of my kimono I drew it’s brother, flying at the guards, deftly sliding the points in beyond their faceplates. I draw them back out, running up over them as their weight collapsed in my wake, clearing the second ring, in the air above the rear guard, falling now, blades dipping into their faces also. Their backs still to me, I ran the length of the rear guard, lacerating their knees. Neatly as if in a choreographed dance, they fell backwards, one at a time, each one a split second later than the other, until only twenty six remained, while the freshly debilitated warriors squirmed and moaned like howling lunatics.
Well aware of the open stairway behind me, I chose to fight. I would need time uninterrupted.
The as yet unharmed second row had finally realised what was happening and they were advancing, swords drawn, struggling for footing over their fallen brothers, slipping in the blood. But as I predicted, the closer they drew towards me, the less space they had, grinding shoulder to shoulder.
My blood wasn’t boiling yet. I had to keep it that way.
Two short guards near the middle were ideal. I ran at them, then halted sharply, their blades pointed at me. But I was a head taller, arms longer, my swords also. Maintaining the distance as they advanced, I rammed my swords into the soft flesh of their eye sockets, wrenching them back out, my space diminishing, but for all their numbers, they were so densely packed, there wasn’t any room to fight: they could scarcely swing at me.
With the advantage it would have been easy to let down my guard, to be overly elaborate when precision was all that was necessary.
My darting tongue tasted the blood on my lips. Arms raised, I charged, leaping into the air, somersaulting, using my weapons to plant through the faceplates of two more hapless guards as I cleared the second ring, once again on the outside. My actions served to confuse and contort the mass of armoured fools, pulling them in one direction, then another, as easily as a dragon at the head of a parade. With their backs to me, I wasted no time in severing the knees of another nine. It would have been more but my blade was too sharp, a paradox of metallurgy, catching in the bone of one warrior, halting my progress.
Wrenching the blade clear, I retreated ten paces, crouched, plotting my next move, before me a sea of screaming red, as the remaining thirteen rounded on me, out of formation struggling with the carnage in front of them. I noticed the woman again, her eyes glowing white hot, steady on her feet, a picture of composure, disgracing the Emperor’s men with her poise. Focus!
Behind me I heard screaming and running footsteps. The servants would do well to stay clear.
My calves fired, ready to explode into action. I charged to the left of the walking dead, nostrils flared, spying a gap I could slide through, unimpeded by a writhing carcass on the other side. Sprinting at two giants, their steel ready, I slid onto my knees just before them, skidding through the blood that sprayed on to my face, between the narrow gap of their legs, piercing up into their guts through their groins as I flew past. I heard the delayed noise of their blades hitting the marble floor, where I had once been a moment earlier, and sprang to my feet, wiping away the blood from my face on the shoulder of my kimono. My feet slipped on the slick surface, so I retreated near the steps so I might dry them. I could not allow the blood of the dying to be my downfall.
By this point my breathing was heavier. The sight of blood made any man’s heart race two beats too many. From my exertion I was sweating now, mixing with the blood plastered on my face. In fewer number, the Emperor’s men were afforded more room to manoeuvre. I knew now was the time to focus absolutely, but I glanced up at the Emperor anyway, the conceited fool still sat motionless. Anger was of no use to man in battle. I looked away, my eyes sweeping those before me. They seemed larger, more menacing, as if they had grown ten hands since I last looked, as they closed in, allowing each other space to fight, knowing my old tricks, forcing me to utilise some of my strategies of combat that I had only practised under the safety of my masters tutelage.
Swords raised, they protected their faceplates, and could carve me in half should I slide once more. Their reaction time would be double. The armpits were not a valuable enough strike to opt for. Severing their hands, was a more…permanent solution, yet it required a certain angle and an executioners cut. My head should not have had such time to deliberate, but in the heat of battle, the most prepared mind thinks fastest.
I retreated up the steps, ten of them, my swords at my side, eager to entertain the Emperor once more. The warriors, constricted by the gap could only rush me two at a time. Four broke away and charged, yet curiously the others remained on the marble, knowing what was going to happen.
Fortunately the armoured fools coming towards me were right and left handed.
I crouched low, coiled, and sprang above them, as their swords fell downwards, missing me by an uncomfortable distance. Landing on their heads, I balanced quickly, and swung the blades in unison, my teeth clenched, feeling the vibration travel up the steel as they chewed through the armour lopping off their arms. Well nearly, one hung on by a sinew. I had no time to think through the imperfection of the cut. Without hesitation, the warriors below, seeing their dismembered allies, swung their steel at me, forcing me to leap, as their swords glanced off the helmets underneath me. While their swords were deflected I drew my arms back and threw my own, straight into their faceplates like spears. Landing back down I nearly fell, the warriors collapsed beneath my weight, and as fortune would have it the other guards below tumbled backwards, sliding to the base of the steps, taking my steel with them. Certainly an inconvenience.
With nine left, I was beginning to feel tired. But I could not rest. I pried the swords from the fallen samurai’s hands, and wielded them, to give me a feel for their individuality. One a little heavy, the other, a handle too thick for my liking.
Had all of the warriors advanced up the steps they would have fallen like dominoes. As it was, they would fall, but maybe one at a time.
They awaited at the base in a black and white blotch of faceless strength, my swords already prised from the skulls they were buried in and tossed aside, clattering as they landed.
With the small window of opportunity I had seconds to gauge them, to reassess my position and decisively plan my next attack, knowing my task was becoming tougher.
As I sure-footedly advanced down the steps, they backed away, and one of them knelt and removed their helmet, before sheathing their sword. I hesitated. In solidarity the others followed, the woman, the last to do so. At the sight of her face I was glad a thousand times, I had not had to slay her. Her beauty was a rare one, the kind you could spend a lifetime searching for and never find. We locked eyes. I sensed begrudging resentment, a fierceness like I’d never seen before that only served to enhance her allure. Breaking her gaze I surveyed the scene before me, from five steps high. Blood decorated the floor in the company of the bodies it leaked from. The survivors bowed their heads, it was difficult to tell if it was from shame or respect. Their position was unclear. Were they stronger for having survived my onslaught, or weaker because they were not yet dead?
One of the guards motioned upwards at the throne. Certainly it was not his place. But it seemed he was correct. I turned my back, still gripping the unfamiliar blades, striding quickly towards the Emperor, leaping two at a time like I had in my mind until I stood before him, four paces away.
I stared at him, sending fury from my eyes, meeting only a blank stare, as he stayed motionless on his throne, as if death did not scare him, nor entertain. As if my blades and heroics were nothing, just another piece of empty entertainment. Was that..? A small movement of his eyes.
Arrogance, that’s all they conveyed. His wispy moustache and grizzled eyebrows contained grey hairs, but whatever wisdom they hinted at little existed in his head.
“Why must I do this!” I said angrily, gesturing at the decimated guards below with my sword, “just so that I may talk to you father!”