The caravan had halted for the evening, and the samurai assigned to guard it gathered around a campfire. Some mended ties on their armor, some were polishing their weapons to perfection. Escorting the merchant caravan was honorable but dull duty, and soon the conversation had turned to bragging of past deeds and glories.
"With this sword, I slew three bandits in one day," boasted one samurai, displaying his katana, now polished to a gleam. "That day, my blade earned the name Lawgiver, and many a criminal has felt its bite."
"Ha!" A burly samurai stepped up and brandished his own weapon with a flourish. "With this blade, I slew an entire village of goblins beyond the Wall! I call it -- Goblin-Cleaver!" His fellows roared with approval. Many of the warriors took a turn boasting of how they came to name their katana - the weapon that some call the very soul of the samurai.
"And you, Daidoji-san?" asked one of the guards of a Crane samurai, who had been quiet until now. "That's a fine blade you carry. What do you call your sword?"
Addressed directly, Daidoji Toshi stood up slowly. "I call my sword Kikuzakura." (Chrysanthemum-Cherry-Blossom)
The other bushi were amazed. "You named your sword after a flower? Hah! Isn't that just like a Crane?"
Toshi only smiled. But he remembered.
* * *
FIVE YEARS AGO....
Late at night, after the day's ceremonies, the boy and the girl had managed to steal away from their keepers. They soon found a quiet place in the gardens where they could be alone...together. They were here in Tsuma for their gempukku ceremony, the formal rite marking the transition to adulthood. The boy was of good family and had been sponsored by the Crane clan; the girl, though of ronin family, had been sponsored by the Unicorn. But beneath the starry night and the cherry trees, there were no clans or colors. There was only a boy and a girl having their own ritual of adulthood; one less formal, and yet more ancient in tradition.
Afterwards, they rested together in their garden bower. "Destiny must have brought us together," said the boy, in the courtly language that he had been taught. "Stay with me, always, I beg of you."
The girl laughed prettily. "You know that cannot be," she said. "After tomorrow, our duties will carry us apart. We may never see each other again."
"No, there must be a way," he protested, but she silenced him with a touch. Untwining from his embrace, she stood up. He admired her graceful figure, silhouetted against the darkness, as she stretched up to pick a cherry blossom from the tree above them.
She turned to present the flower to him: a kikuzakura, white and many-petalled. "Our love is like the cherry blossom," she said seriously. "Beautiful, but short blooming. Soon, all these flowers will be gone. So, too, will be our love. Before the year is gone, you will have forgotten me."
"No, I will never forget you," he vowed.
* * *
The next day was the dueling tournament, and the Crane boy surprised them all. He faced countless other Crane and Lion vying for the same prize, and yet overcame them all. Most of the children were judged to have passed their gempukku, and were now legally adults; not least of these was the boy who took the name Daidoji Toshi.
One of the judges presented Daidoji Toshi with a new katana of fine craftsmanship. "For your victory today, the Crane Clan wishes to present you with this blade. Use it with honor!"
Toshi accepted the weapon gravely. "I am deeply honored," he said. "I shall call it Kikuzakura, so that I will always be reminded of the lovely cherry blossoms of the city of Tsuma."
The local dignitaries beamed at this compliment to their city, and there was polite applause. But Toshi's eyes stole to look at the face of a girl--no, a samurai-ko, now--in the crowd. She gazed down shyly at his glance, and blushed.
* * *
Toshi laughed amiably with the other samurai, seeming not to mind their jest. "Yes, how like a Crane samurai, is it not?" he said wryly.
As his lover had predicted, duty had sent them to opposite ends of the Empire, and he had not seen her ever since.
But he still remembered her well.
So bright in their youth
Flowers fade as time passes