Birth of a Berserker

“Would you care to see some of our school, Lord Kiah?”

“I would indeed,” the Matsu daimyo replied with a smile. “I have long endured the skillful attentions of your diplomats. Perhaps observing how they are trained might provide me with me some worthwhile insight for the future.”

Doji Shirochi, Chief Courtier and Master of the Doji Social Academy, smiled back and rose to his feet. He slid aside one of the shoji that formed the southern wall of the upper floor of Shinden Asahina, revealing a shallow open air balcony. The scene outside the door was breathtaking, and the little diplomat stepped to one side to allow the Matsu daimyo to fully appreciate the view. Kiah acknowledged the courtesy with a small bow and strode out onto the upper level of the grand temple. Below him sat a meticulously manicured rock garden, its gravel raked into seven distinctly patterned sections, each one emblazoned with the symbol of one of the Great Clans. A large boulder engraved with the mon of a rival clan rested in the middle of each section, and beside every stone stood a young boy. A cool breeze that smelled faintly of orchids blew across the balcony, and Kiah took a deep breath before nodding his head in the direction of the seven youths. “What are those students doing?”

Shirochi stepped forward to join Kiah on the balcony, automatically assuming the deferential position of an advisor—slightly behind and to the left of the great noble. “They are completing an exercise in cooperation, Lord Kiah. Each section of the garden represents one of the Great Clans, to which they have been assigned as advisors. The boulder represents an enemy army that has invaded the domain of their assigned lord, and the students must find a way to remove that army from their land and return it home.”

“You train your courtiers by having them haul rocks?” Kiah asked.

“We do today, Kiah-sama.”

“Are you by chance training them to negotiate with the Crab?”

Shirochi chuckled politely at the jest. “No, my lord. As you can see, the rocks are far too large for any of the students to move alone. In order for them to succeed, they must work together to move the boulders to their proper locations. This helps teach them the power of compromise.”

Kiah nodded and turned his attention to the students, who quickly began to congregate in the middle of the garden, talking quietly and gesturing at the boulders. Kiah studied the boys’ expressions and body language, and he could tell that, save for the broad-shouldered, white-haired boy who had come from the section of the garden inscribed with the mon of the Lion Clan, they were united upon a course of action. The white-haired youth appeared reluctant to join the alliance, however, responding to his companions suggestions with shakes of his head and sharp, chopping hand gestures. The other students badgered the dissenting boy for several minutes, and Kiah watched with interest as the boy refused to yield his position, stoically enduring the arguments thrown at him and responding in kind. Eventually the other students gave up and ceased their attempts to persuade him, breaking off into pairs to return the stones to their correct positions. While they worked, the white-haired boy marched, stiff-backed, to the middle of his portion of the garden and glared at the boulder resting there.

The other students quickly finished negotiating the return of the remaining stones, even going so far as to push the boulder representing the Lion army to the border of its occupied territory. They then retired from the garden and seated themselves below the balcony on the wide steps leading up to Shinden Asahina. The white-haired boy remained where he was, scowling at the Scorpion-carved boulder in the heart of his assigned region.

Beside Kiah, Doji Shirochi sighed.

“I take it the boy in the Lion province has failed?” Kiah asked.

Shirochi gave a solemn nod. “He has refused to surrender the territory his army has occupied, even at the cost of his own. I fear that Moretsu may be ill-suited to life as a diplomat. He is a smart boy, but often allows his anger to overcome reason. If you will please excuse me, Lord Kiah, I must attend to this.”

“Might I join you?” Kiah inquired. “I often find that my own son is willfully stubborn, and I must admit to a personal interest in how you plan to resolve such a problem.”

Shirochi bowed deeply. “Of course, my lord. It would be my honor.”

The Doji courtier retreated through the open balcony door and led Kiah down the stairs into the temple’s massive great hall. A mural depicting the rising sun covered the entire eastern wall, and Kiah was tempted to slow down and admire the masterful work, but a series of sharp cracks from outside the main entrance caught his attention. The sound reminded Kiah of a gull he’d once seen dropping oysters on the rocks outside of Otosan Uchi, and his curiosity prompted him to keep step with Doji Shirochi. As the pair approached the carved teak archway spanning the entrance of Shinden Asahina, a single resounding crack thundered though the opening, followed immediately by a pair of muffled thuds. Kiah and Shirochi shared a puzzled look, then hurried out onto the temple’s grand staircase to investigate.

The moment they passed through the portal, Shirochi’s pupils descended upon them like a flock of angry kenku. “Master! Master!” cried a skinny boy with close-set eyes. “Moretsu has gone mad and is desecrating the gardens!”

The beady-eyed boy pointed to where the white-haired youth stood above the split halves of one of the large boulders, a rock the size of a man’s fist clutched in his hand. The rock was scratched and chipped on one side, as though it had been used as a hammer, and the boy’s jaw was clenched hard enough that the tendons in his neck stood out like the strings of a harp. His eyes were flat and unfocused, and his chest heaved as though he had just run a great distance.

“He’s having some sort of fit,” Shirochi cried. He lifted the hem of his kimono in preparation to run to the boy’s aid, but Kiah’s strong hand gripped his shoulder and brought him to a halt.

“Do not,” Kiah ordered.

“But the boy is in distress. I must—“

“The boy is fine,” Kiah interrupted. “Watch.”

In the garden, the white-haired youth casually flung the battered stone from his hand and bent down to pick up one half of the broken boulder. He hefted the large stone to his shoulder and, with a grunt, hurled it at the section of garden decorated with the Scorpion mon. It landed atop the symbol with a boom, obliterating the armored arachnid and leaving a small crater in its place, but boy with the white hair did not stop to admire the impact. Instead he turned around, seized the remaining chunk of boulder, and sent it flying after its counterpart. The two reunited with a dull crunch more than a dozen yards from the boy, shattering into a pile of loose rubble.

“Merciful Jizo,” Shirochi whispered in awe.

The white-haired youth spun back to face his section of the garden, and seeing nothing there to attack, began stalking along its borders like a caged animal. Doji Shirochi tensed and once again tried to go to the boy’s aid, but Kiah intensified his grip and held the diplomat in place.

“Not yet,” Kiah said.

Shirochi relented with a sigh and let the white-haired boy continue pacing the garden. The youth completed two full circuits before finally collapsing to his knees in a spray a gravel, his chin against his chest. Kiah released his hold on Shirochi the instant the boy hit the ground, and the Doji courtier raced across the garden in a fashion wholly unbecoming a diplomat. When Shirochi reached his pupil’s side, he dropped to his knees and took the boy’s head in his hands.

Kiah followed Shirochi at a more sedate pace, allowing him an opportunity to converse with his pupil in relative privacy. From where Kiah stood, it looked as if the boy was trying to assure his master that he was uninjured. Kiah was certain that the boy was correct—he had seen many men struggle to recover their senses after succumbing to a berserker fury. The boy would be tired, but would suffer no lasting harm.

The youth was apparently coherent enough to relate as much to his master, because by the time Kiah reached the pair, Shirochi had returned to his feet and stood with one hand on his student’s shoulder.

The boy remained where he was, his head bowed.

Kiah said, “It would seem that you were correct, Doji-san.”

Shirochi did not reply.

The white-haired youth raised his head and looked up at his teacher. “What does he mean, Master?”

“I mean that there is no place for you here,” Kiah answered for the diplomat.

“Master?” the boy asked, a look of desperation on his face.

“I fear that Lord Kiah is correct,” Shirochi admitted.

“But… I am Asahina,” the boy said, utterly crestfallen. “My place is here, among the Crane.”

Kiah said nothing, providing Doji Shirochi with a chance to explain, but the little courtier remained silent. “Leave us,” Kiah ordered after Shirochi’s silence had stretched for an uncomfortably long time.

“My lord, I cannot—”

“I said leave us,” barked Kiah, his eyes hard. “I will not say it again.”

Shirochi pressed his lips together and bowed stiffly. “Of course, Lord Kiah. I must see to my other students. Please excuse me.”

The Doji courtier retreated back to the temple, and Kiah waited until he was out of earshot to address the boy. “Your name is Moretsu, is it not?”

The boy’s gaze had returned to the ground and he responded without lifting his eyes. “Yes, my lord.”

“And do you know what just happened here?”

“No, my lord.”

Kiah grunted. “Then I will explain. But first, tell me why you would not allow the others to move your army’s stone.”

“Because it was not the proper solution, my lord.”

“Why not?”

The boy hesitated for an instant, but then raised his head and looked the Matsu daimyo in the eye. “I mean no disrespect to my Master or my fellow students, my lord, but they were wrong to cooperate. A battle delayed is not the same as a battle won.”

“And why is that?”

“Because an army that does not fight is like a sword with no hand to wield it. It serves no purpose; it merely lies about, collecting rust and rotting away until it is nothing more than a nuisance—or worse, a danger—to its owner. Armies are not stones on a Go board, my lord. Armies exist to make war.”

“Your words are wise for one so young,” Kiah said, pleased by the boy’s answer. “I think perhaps you belong in my school at Kyuden Matsu.”

The boy shook his head. “I am Asahina, my lord. I am honored by your offer, but if I am not to be a bodyguard or a shugenja, my place is here.”

“Are you able to speak with the Kami?” Kiah asked.

“No, my lord.”

“And do you hope to serve your family with honor?”

“Of course I do, my lord.”

“Then I say again that your place is at Kyuden Matsu. For I can see the fury that rages inside you, and it will bring you nothing but dishonor should you become a diplomat.”

“Master Shirochi insists that he can teach me to control it,” the boy replied.

“He is wrong,” Kiah said, matter-of-factly.

“Then I must go to the Daidoji and train as a bodyguard,” the boy declared.

“They will not have you.”

A look of defiance flashed across the boy’s face. “And why is that, Matsu-sama?”

The boy’s tone was heavy with bitterness and resentment, but Kiah chose to ignore it. “They will not have you because no Crane will ever trust the lives of those he holds dear to one such as yourself. Your rage marks you. It will make you a formidable warrior, but the Crane do not understand such fury, and like all men, they fear what they do not understand. Your master knows this to be true, although he does not have the heart to admit it.” Kiah nodded to where Doji Shirochi stood on the temple steps, speaking quietly with his other students. “No, Moretsu, you must come with me. The Matsu do not fear the fire that burns in your breast. We understand that fire, and we can teach you to channel it. We can teach you to unleash it upon your enemies, to burn them to ash and bring honor to your family.”

The boy eyed Kiah skeptically. “And why should I trust you?”

“You shouldn’t,” Kiah said, dismissing the notion with a flick of his battle-scarred hand. “Trust is for fools and Scorpion. I ask only that you treat my words no differently than those of your fellow students—listen to them, evaluate them, and then decide for yourself if I am correct.”

“But I know nothing of the ways of the Lion.”

“And if you remain here, that will likely always be true. But tell me, given what you know of this temple, do you honestly think that this is where you belong?”

The boy looked away without replying, his gaze traveling to the heap of broken stone and then back to Kiah.

The Matsu daimyo could see the boy’s uncertainty and he nodded in approval. “Again you demonstrate your wisdom. It is not given for every man to choose his destiny, and when it is, it is not a decision to be made lightly.” Matsu Kiah gave the boy a shallow bow. “It has been an honor to meet you, Moretsu. I will leave you to think on my offer.” Kiah turned and began walking back toward Shinden Asahina. After a few steps he paused and added over his shoulder, “Choose wisely.”

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