Chapter 10:



I frown. “Termite?”

“Must I repeat myself?” Hashiguchi says as he arrives next to me. He stands a head taller and crosses his arms. “The Hashiguchi clan has served the Nakashima clan since Sekigahara four hundred years ago. While you and your ‘Lads’ sweep the streets for litter, I sweep the hallways for those who would disturb the peace.”

He taps his fingers on the handle of his wooden katana resting on his hip. “Countless foes have met their end at my blade.”

Standing behind him, Nobuko rolls her eyes.

I narrow my own. “Foes? You mean the knights of summer you duel in your Ichi-Machi tournaments? People who have never known cold or hunger? People who take up the way of the sword as a hobby, rather than embracing it to find meaning, to truly live it?”

“Meaning this and meaning that,” Hashiguchi answers. “You and your sister both, always going off about meaning.” He grins. “You can’t find meaning in life. It’s just an illusion. You can only find meaning in birth. Anything that comes afterwards is just destiny playing out in real time.”

I let out a slow breath. “Birth is just a matter of chance. It’s inherently random. It’s all about luck. What meaning can be found in luck?”

Hashiguchi gives me a lackadaisical shrug. “I was born lucky, while you were lucky to be born. That’s the meaning behind it.”

I take a step toward him, but Nobuko moves in between us. “Man, both of you guys are such losers,” she says with a smile. It’s mainly directed at me - she knows and even I know that if I do something stupid now, then I really would lose my chance for tonight.

“Enough of this farce,” Hashiguchi declares. “Nakashima, make your decision.”

The kaicho has been watching the whole affair from behind her desk, lightly rubbing her chin in thought. She looks amused.

“Hashiguchi, I must admit - you’ve served me well in the past and make valid points. This is a combat mission, not a litter-removal program. And yet-”

Nakashima takes a dainty step next to me. “And yet, I have faith in Kouji. He cares. He sees this as an opportunity to improve the city, not as an opportunity to earn hardware for a trophy case.”

Hashiguchi briefly frowns, but the smug mask quickly returns to his face.

Nakashima claps. "We will settle this fairly. You two will duel, and the winner will lead tonight’s mission.”

Nobuko giggles and pats me on the back, clearly excited. 

I gaze at my opponent. “I accept.”

And to Hashiguchi’s credit, he doesn’t back down either. “As do I.”

Nakashima leads us out of the student council room and to a spare gymnasium. The walk was a quiet one - neither Hashiguchi and I are on speaking terms at the moment, Nobuko just giggles and giggles, while Nakashima seems to glide across the hallways. Students quiet down as she passes by - they all consider her to be the Princess of Shikishima, after all. Not literally, of course (though there are rumors), but her serene presence radiates with a sense of graceful authority nonetheless.

In the gymnasium, Nobuko provides us each with sparring helmets. I’m in red, while Hashiguchi wears blue. We stand apart from each other on either end of a basketball court. I can imagine the old banner of the Hashiguchi clan fluttering in the (indoor fan-provided) breeze from the basketball hoop over his head. In contrast, the Mizutami clan isn’t a clan at all, just a ragtag pair of siblings with a jailed father and dead mother. We don’t have a banner, but I hold my head up high nonetheless. Was it luck that made Nakashima notice me? Or was it my dedication to my art?

I’ll decide that afterwards. As for right now, my only concern is kicking Hashiguchi’s teeth in. Yes, I want to impress Nakashima. But I must prove to him that life’s meaning doesn’t derive from birth. I must prove this to him because if he loses, he’ll return to his life of fast cars, beautiful girls, old money, easy living. If I lose, I return to nothing.

I must prove this to him because I must prove it to myself.

Nakashima stands on the sidelines, her hands held behind her back. She lets Nobuko do the talking.

“First one to yield loses!” Nobuko declares through a megaphone she found in the storage closet.

I take deep breaths.

Hashiguchi twirls the katana in his hand.

Nobuko chops her arm downwards.


I step forward, but Hashiguchi has already darted halfway across the basketball court. I only have time to think he’s fast! by the time he reaches me. His wooden katana whistles through the air, seemingly slicing through the glow of the overhead fluorescent lights themselves as he delivers a monstrous slash downwards toward my dominant shoulder, intent on disabling me from the start.

I raise my sword just in time and block his attack. Undeterred, he slips to my side and tries again. I’m forced on my backfoot as he advances on me, slashing, chopping, and doing all those other sword things that I don’t know the names of. His style is technical, proficient, learned in the dojos of Ichi-Machi, a mixture of Tokugawa sword-fighting and French fencing. I can practically hear him hoarsely whisper “en garde!” with each strike.

I don’t have all that knowledge. I learned Kenjutsu Water Style from an old man squatting in an apartment down the street. It's not a real style - the old man was a minor actor in '80s Hong Kong cinema who lost his job when the industry’s favored genre switched from wuxia to gun fu (well, that and some uncouth remarks made regarding the local Chinese populace during a drunken stupor). He says they may have taken his job, but they’ll never take his art - his love of the sword, his way of the sword, the very way of Kenjutsu Water Style he passed down to me (in exchange for booze money).

Hashiguchi’s flurry of strikes trip me up. I let my guard down for a moment and he pounces, striking me hard on my other shoulder. I slip away, gaining some space, gritting my teeth from the pain. It feels like his attack bruised the very bone itself; the spare hand on my sword grows weak. I try to counterattack, but he lazily deflects my strike and forces me back.

Hashiguchi takes a minute to catch his breath, not feeling any urgency when he sees me in my current condition. He spins the sword in his hand and circles me like a shark; I’m just a swimmer bleeding out in the water. Nakashima remains as serene as ever. Nobuko bites her fingernails, but hastily smiles when she catches my glance.

Meaning this and meaning that. 

A man who finds no meaning in this versus a man who finds his entire meaning in this.

…ah. There it is.

Entire meaning.

Once again, I’ve become lost in the sauce.

Why did I continue to visit the old drunkard, even when his breath stank? Why did I continue to hone my craft? Why is this my craft?

Because it’s fun.

A wise musician once proclaimed that fun things are fun. Sometimes we forget this simple fact of life.

When you become too focused on the meaning, on the message, on the feeling you must prove something - you become focused on the result, not on the journey that brings you there. But the journey is arguably the most important part.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Nakashima give a small nod.

“Hashiguchi,” I call out.

He pauses, frowning at the renewed strength in my voice. “Get on with it. Give me your last words.”

“Do you find this fun?”

Hashiguchi raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“If your family didn’t command you to take up the sword, what would you be doing right now? Would you seek out the sword yourself?”

Hashiguchi eyes his wooden katana. Then he frowns. “Does that even matter?”

I take a step towards him, my weapon at the ready. “Who knows?”

Hashiguchi charges me again, but this time, I’m ready. Kenjutsu Water Style, as depicted in the 1983 heroic bloodshed film Bruce Lei Against the Silver Men, is a flowing sort of art, calm and focused, accepting the circumstances of time and fate and then flipping the table once the opportunity arises. Hashiguchi is faster, but I’m stronger. Perhaps my words have gotten to him, or the attrition is wearing him down; he attacks and attacks and attacks, but I block them, then parry a strike slowed by exhaustion.

I immediately take up the counterattack and charge him, sending the sword equivalent of haymakers. I’ve turned the tide; he mounts a desperate defense; I have him. I aim a fierce blow to knock his head open; when he raises his weapon to block it, I slam my katana right through it. His sword flies out of his hand while my katana roars into the top of his helmet.

The incision was barely felt from the sharpness of the blade.

Hashiguchi falls to his knees, his bell utterly rung. Then he collapses face first.

Nobuko sighs in relief, then quickly giggles again. Nakashima looks on in approval.

“Victory goes to…Mizutami Kouji!” Nobuko declares through her megaphone. She puts it away and hauls Hashiguchi to his feet (okay, okay, I'm using a blunt weapon and he's wearing a helmet, there was no incision, just a KO), taking him away to the infirmary. As she closes the gym door behind her, she glances back at me.

“Take your time tonight,” Nobuko says with a wink. “I’m gonna go catch up with Sumiko.”

When the door closes, I’m all alone with Nakashima.

I remain standing on the court; she takes a step backwards, leaning against the wall.

“You did this deliberately,” I realize. “You let Hashiguchi stay in the room, knowing he would challenge me.”

“I did,” she admits.

I pause. “...did you think I’d win?”

“I didn’t think. I believed.”

Man, she’s so cute. But also confusing. “Huh?”

“Meaning isn’t rational,” Nakashima says. “Science and nature don’t produce meaning. Our brains are just chemical equations. Nothing inherently has meaning. We must ascribe meaning to things. It takes effort and the ability to let go of the rational. Not everybody can do so. The only way to do it is to believe in something greater.”

She glances upwards at the bright lights. “Kouji, I think you and I can change Shikishima for the better. Because we believe it can be better. You’ll find that many don’t.”

I use putting my katana back on my hip as an excuse not to answer for a moment. My mind feels all jumbled up. I look at her, then tug at my collar and look at the lights. “Ah, well, you know…I’m that kind of guy.”

Nakashima lets out a chuckle, then reaches into a skirt pocket. “Try this on,” she says, tossing a glove over to me. It’s colored as black as the night sky with a few white stripes cutting across it.

“Why, what’s so special about-” When I put on the glove, something clicks within me, like all cylinders are firing. I could run a marathon, fly to space, cross the globe, and make it back in time for supper. Sparks flare up through the glove while electric-charged steam billows through tiny pores.

“The Nakashima Conglomerate Cold Fusion Battle Glove x19,” Nakashima explains. “It’s not like I’d send you with just a wooden katana to seize a room full of guns.” 

Steward McOy