"We won't take these two to the village," Kambei-sensei's voice echoed in his head still. "What we're looking for is samurai."
Katsushiro had been ashamed for his failure during the escapade to rescue Kirara-dono, had accepted the shame and apologized for his inadequacy in front of everyone in the room. He'd thought, maybe... he wanted to help stop the Nobuseri. Kirara-dono and her companions were very brave, bringing bags of rice into a city of starved samurai and thieves, proposing an offer that most men would refuse. For the Nobuseri to terrorize and take advantage of the farmers was barbaric, and where Katsushiro saw wrong, he wanted to make right. To protect the weak, as he'd said, was part of a warrior's duty. Warriors helped defend those who could not defend themselves.
So he'd offered his services to Kirara-dono, her sister, and the man who had accompanied them. He was inexperienced and even little Komachi had been able to tell, but that didn't lessen his desire to aid them in any way he could.
When Komachi had mentioned their trip back to the village, Katsushiro hadn't expected Kambei-sensei's stark correction. "We won't take these two to the village. What we're looking for is samurai."
The words had hurt, but had stung even more because he knew they were correct. Katsushiro had been impressed by Kikuchiyo-dono's skills during the fight with the city troops that had come for Kirara-dono, and yet, Kambei-sensei had refused the armored warrior's offer, as well. If Kikuchiyo-dono wasn't qualified to be a samurai, then Katsushiro had little chance of earning Kambei-sensei's approval.
And then Gorobei had come. Katsushiro had encountered the former samurai before -- and had fired an arrow at his head at the man's behest. After encountering two highly skilled samurai in such a short time, Katsushiro had been left in a state of awe, and had wanted at once to both better himself to be more like them, and to slink away in shame, for his skills were nothing compared to theirs.
Kirara-dono's voice startled him, and he suddenly remembered where he was. Masamune had given them lodging, and tomorrow they would look for more samurai to go to the village. Kambei-sensei said they needed seven.
He blinked at his rice and then raised his head, giving Kirara-dono a questioning glance. "Yes?"
She shook her head, dark hair moving gently with the action. "You're not eating."
Katsushiro looked back down at the rice, fluffy and white in his bowl. Without looking, he knew that Kirara-dono and the other peasants were denying themselves the rice, leaving it for the samurai they so desperately hoped would agree to go back and help save their village -- the samurai who were *good enough* to go back and help save their village.
He had eaten their rice once before, after Kambei-sensei had refused Kirara-dono's proposal. Now he knew he had no right to eat it. I don't deserve it. He was no samurai, certainly not one of the other five Kambei-sensei was searching for. That didn't mean he was going to give up; he wanted to help Kirara-dono and wanted to better himself. On the other hand, he knew his place at the moment.
"I don't--" he began, and then saw Kambei-sensei looking at him. "I don't deserve to eat your rice," he'd wanted to say, but now the words died in his throat. Kambei-sensei's expression wasn't *quite* stern, but it did look firm. "Sensei?" He'd intended the query to be louder, but it didn't come out as anything more than a breathless whisper. Katsushiro didn't think anyone had heard it.
"Don't waste," was all Kambei-sensei said, not unkindly, before going back to his own meal. Gorobei-dono and Kikuchiyo-dono had no comment.
"Y-yes," Katsushiro managed, and was somehow able to pick up his chopsticks and begin eating even though he didn't particularly feel like it.
When Kambei-sensei had accepted Kirara-dono's proposal, he'd sworn he would not waste the rice he'd been given. Now, Katsushiro followed that example, dutifully swallowing every last grain in his bowl.
"Kambei," Gorobei-dono spoke up, setting his empty bowl aside, "I'd like to go over that map with you again."
Kambei-sensei nodded, finishing up his own meal. "We can review the tentative strategy before we go to sleep." He glanced around the room at everyone else. "Tomorrow, we'll continue our search for samurai. This is a large city; there are bound to be some worthy men somewhere, be they residents or simply travelers passing through. We must find them."
Katsushiro tried not to wince at Kambei-sensei's wording. "Worthy men...." He was not among them, yet.
"Will you two help search?" Kambei-sensei went on, looking pointedly at Kikuchiyo-dono and him, though Katsushiro thought that perhaps, just maybe, the veteran samurai's gaze had lingered a moment longer on him. "Don't feel obligated."
"Of *course* I'm going to help!" Kikuchiyo-dono snapped, sounding minutely offended at the notion that he would not. "Why d'you think I'm still hanging around here?"
"I'm glad to hear that," Gorobei-dono said with a small smile.
"And you, Katsushiro?" Kambei-sensei inquired.
Despite himself, Katsushiro's gaze flickered briefly toward Kirara-dono. She was watching the exchange with a resigned expression, but Katsushiro could see the hope behind it.
He met Kambei-sensei's stare. "I said it wouldn't be much, but I would pledge whatever skills I had to helping these people save their village." And he would do so; he would remain with Kirara-dono and her companions for as long as he could, and he would try his best to better himself, to gain Kambei-sensei's approval.
Kambei-sensei looked at him for only a short time before declaring, "Good, then."
Masamune had been kind enough to give them all rooms for their stay. They were nothing extravagant, but that didn't matter. Everyone was grateful, Katsushiro included.
The evening meal had concluded without further conversation, and all but Kambei-sensei and Gorobei-dono had retired to their humble rooms. Kikuchiyo-dono had been the first to go, followed shortly by Kirara-dono and her two companions.
Kambei-sensei and Gorobei-dono stayed up later into the night, discussing everything about the landscape surrounding the peasants' village to the village people themselves. Katsushiro remained awake, sitting with them but not *with* them, listening to their conversation. They let him be, never commenting either on his presence, or on his stamina when his eyelids began to droop.
He wanted to stay awake, but it had been a long day and he wasn't an active participant in the discussion. Katsushiro was relieved when Gorobei-dono ended the review and bid them good night. That left only Kambei-sensei and Katsushiro in the main room of Masamune's dwelling. The crackling fire cast shadows across the veteran samurai's face.
Katsushiro thought he ought to say something. Kambei-sensei was looking at him, almost as if he was expecting words. He shifted, glanced down at his hands; they had curled against his thighs, bunching up his breeches. "Sensei--"
"You are not coming to the village." Kambei-sensei's voice was matter-of-fact, but strangely, Katsushiro didn't detect finality in the tone.
"But, Sensei, I--"
"Why do you want to go to the village?" Kambei-sensei rested his elbow on his leg, and in turn, his cheek on his hand -- watching, considering.
Katsushiro knew very well why he wanted to go to the farmers' village. "To save the peasants from the Nobuseri."
He blinked. Was it not obvious? "Because what the Nobuseri are doing is wrong."
"And why is that?"
This was some sort of test, surely. Katsushiro considered his answer, putting his feelings into words. "It's not right for the strong to terrorize the weak. It's not right for the Nobuseri to force the farmers to give up the rice they worked so hard to harvest. I want to stop it from happening, however I can."
"Hmm." Kambei-sensei seemed neither satisfied nor disappointed. "Have you ever killed before, Katsushiro?"
Katsushiro took a deep breath. "No, Sensei."
"This job involves killing," Kambei-sensei said as he stood. "Let me see your hands."
Puzzled, Katsushiro offered them. He watched as Kambei-sensei took one, ran the thumb of his own hand along the palm and fingers of Katsushiro's.
"You practice very often," Kambei-sensei declared, feeling the faint calluses. "Perhaps you've even been in a real fight or two. But this will not be just be any fight," he added as he went to the fire.
"Yes, I know that."
Kambei-sensei returned with a bag of rice that had been left near the fireplace. He sat down in front of Katsushiro, and placed the bag between them. "Do you remember what you said to Kirara, when you apologized to her?"
"Of course, Sensei."
Kambei-sensei opened the bag. "Then you remember how you spoke of not being able to protect one person."
Katsushiro's heart sank a little, and he felt embarrassed. "Yes." "I couldn't even protect you. How can I protect an entire village?"
"It is very noble to want to protect those weaker than you," Kambei-sensei explained. He reached into the bag and pulled out a double-handful of rice. "But protecting an entire village of people is no small task." Slowly, he separated his hands; the grains began to fall back into the bag. "Each grain of rice here is a person -- a person you've chosen to defend. Such a thing is no small task. Look here," he went on as the rice continued to fall, "when danger arrives, how will you defend all of these people?"
Almost all of the rice was back in the bag. On impulse, Katsushiro moved, slipping his own hands under Kambei-sensei's, catching the last few grains. When he glanced up, he thought he saw a trace of a smile on the veteran samurai's face.
"Sensei, I want to help protect their village."
"Defense is more difficult than attacking," Kambei-sensei said, not for the first time. He stood, brushed himself off, and made as if to go to bed. "You're not ready, Katsushiro."
Without waiting for a response, Kambei-sensei left the room. Katsushiro remained where he was for several minutes, looking at the empty doorway. After a time, he took the bag of rice and returned it to its place beside the fire.
"You're not ready."
Perhaps not, but he'd already decided to improve, and maybe soon, he would be.