This is part of the hopefully ongoing Horakinis & Usui saga that began in Crux of Scrolls. At the moment, due to the (hopefully) immanent arrival of 3rd Edition, all longer works are sort of in a holding pattern, so I'm working on a series of vignettes to get a better grasp of the characters and their interactions. This is the first of (hopefully) several.
As always, questions and comments of any kind are always welcome.
Teacher and Ninja: On Martial Arts
Dawn, cresting over the wide landscape of the South, brought heat, swiftly. The brief coolness of the night air, barely accumulated to reasonability, was banished ere it had grown strong. This snapping recalibration of the atmosphere, trends inverted in moments, served to alarm Horakinis’ body into wakefulness.
She found the sensation strangely welcoming, a natural reference to bring her forth with the sun.
She dressed quickly, slipping on boots and blouse. Her scrubbing was aborted, hairs and nails, a few moments with a slicked razor, and little more; concession to the climate and the rigors of the road. There was only so much that could be done practically to conserve fastidiousness. Prior to pushing back the edge of her tent she added the belt that bore her swords and an opaque cloak and veil. Each served as protection, perhaps equally valuable.
Emerging into the still soft glow of morning brightness she found, in an occurrence she had swiftly come to recognize as inevitable, Usui up and about. The dragon-blooded was already fully mobile, practicing her forms.
Horakinis was not a lazy woman. She knew this, could chart it if necessary. Her nights often stretched well past the midpoint – reading or composing correspondence – and she rose early, mindful of the merchant’s axiom to move with the waking of the day. Yet her aide steadfastly refused the bedroll until all duties were satisfied and still emerged well beforehand each morning. This exhaustive schedule had seemingly no effect on the other woman at all, who began every day, including this one, with a brutally strenuous set of martial exercises.
It was not simply a matter of the vigor imposed by exaltation. They shared that particular trait. Struggling to research an answer had eventually resolved upon the unsatisfying conclusion that it was merely a matter of the ordinary variance between individuals. Usui, Horakinis had come to recognize, was one of those persons who recovered fully on a minimum quantity of rest.
A blessing of which the twilight Caste was deeply envious.
Similar flashes of jealousy sprung to life within the crimson-haired woman as she watched the ashen-skinned fire aspect conduct her daily training. Usui wore a common tunic and pants, simple and bland, completely lacking in adornment or embellishment. The same could not be said of the rudest of her katas.
Each motion was smooth but erratic, rapid but unpredictable, soft as smoke but deadly as flame. She spun and wove, footwork and hand-motions and every bend and twist of her body seamlessly integrated into perfectly synchronized applications. Swords, gently curved and ruthlessly pointed, rose into her hands, launched snap cuts sufficiently sharp to make the air before her glow and recoil, then disappeared back into their harness at blinding speed. The same killing maneuvers were then repeated with bare hands.
Watching, Horakinis felt her hands fall, fully of their own accord, to the hilt of the paired blades – similar in size and shape – she bore. While allowing fingers to coil about the sharkskin wrap adorning those precision grips, she refused to draw. Attempting to imitate those moves – that flame-flicker artistry – would result in embarrassment and injury, nothing more.
As a child she had been made to suffer lessons under the harsh tongue and stout rod of the same legion veteran her father had hired to instruct her brothers. A practical, flexible man, that soldier had taught her the way of light blades, the short quick cuts suited to her shorter frame and reach. Despite a deep personal distaste for the practice, especially the time they stole from her precious texts, she had accepted instruction as always and learned. The principles of swordplay had been duly absorbed. In time, when events had demanded it, she had advanced them to killing, doubly regretful.
What Usui did was not swordplay. Her motions represented the distillation of the being that was Hesiesh, elemental fire itself, transcribed onto the form of a human body and channeled through the abiding power of essence. A match between heavenly nature and physical expression described in woefully inadequate fashion by the term ‘martial art.’
Horakinis had learned to suppress the pangs of covetousness this expression of exalted fighting puissance made manifest in her when displayed each morning beside her tent. Generally the all-too-real excuse of pressing business was more than enough. Today, struck for an instant by the play of light over the charcoal-shaded vein lines mapped across Usui’s pale skin and the patterned sandy bursts stirred with each delicate cross-step pattern, she paused. Silent, eyes focused, she observed all the way to the end.
Watching this she recalled, as ever, the first sight of those moves, that slender silent frame, the dragon-blooded who had materialized from sand and starlight to spare her an ignominious end. Following the path of those deadly graceful shifts, she was stirred by an impulse first formulated that night. Today, when Usui sheathed the curling blades in the bowed prayer-form that signaled the end, the solar finally found the courage to act upon it.
“Impressive, as ever,” the twilight told the dragon-blooded. “I have been wondering. Could you teach me?”
Save for at meal times or while bathing, Usui wore a mask over the lower half of her face, obscuring mouth and nose. No explanation had been offered for this peculiar practice, and none had been requested – not that there was anything wrong with the narrowly pointed face beneath.
Most days the mask was an irrelevancy, but on occasion, when she struggled to engage the dragon-blooded in conversation, it made the already deeply reserved visage all but impossible to read. Dark gray eyes were a conduit for but minimal expression.
“Only a master can teach,” Usui’s answer was abrupt. Her motionless frame conveyed firm finality. “I am not a master. My understanding lacks.”
“Ah…” Horakinis tried to hide her disappointment, her feelings unsure, muddled. A missed opportunity? Or a thankfully forbidden distraction? Difficult to say.
“Even could I,” this unexpected continuance snapped the solar’s head around. “You are not fire.” Charcoal-hard, that gaze carried dark promises. “If you seek to grasp death it has another form.”
“I…see,” Horakinis nodded quickly. The point was salient. Considering this, she quickly reflected that her grasp of blades had never come as swiftly as that of the bow. Perhaps the similarity of their weapons was a false lure. “I shall research that carefully.”
Usui offered a small bow. Surprisingly, and seemingly to the dragon-blooded woman as well, as her motions were uncharacteristically unsure, she was not finished. “Dragon-breath I cannot impart, but if you wish to train body or blade, I am your servant.”
“Ah, well,” the twilight paused, smiling thinly. She was under no illusions that Usui would retain her characteristic deference if pressed into the role of instructor. Inexperienced teachers inevitably imitated the methods used upon them. In the case of this particular young woman that meant the retired legion veterans who led drill at Pasiap’s Stair.
Her upbringing had provided the experience, at least in the form of rumor, to grasp what unfolded at that place. Anything necessary to repair Creation could be endured, of course, Horakinis promised herself, but perhaps there were other priorities better suited to her devotion.
“Thank you,” she told Usui. “If I can find spare hours I shall take up that offer.”
It was doubtful this remark was believed. Politeness propelled it, not sincerity or false promises, and the scout was a quick judge. Whether or not the other woman took offense Horakinis could not have said. The dragon-blooded was quite marvelous at masking her feelings. Either that or strangely empty of them, doubly unlikely given her nature.
A frustrating puzzle that, especially given the potentially lethal implications. It was one the solar was absolutely committed to solving, no matter the challenges.
Martial arts, it seemed, were not part of the formula.
Reflecting this, as the sun rose, heat gathered, and the camp transformed into a caravan again, she found it only sensible that this was so. It would have been too easy otherwise.
The mysterious fate that drove a dragon-blooded into the service of a solar in this age could never be simple.