She also gave me three of my own to play with, which, well, I played with.
"One man in a thousand, Solomon says"
On Benkei Bridge the cherries blow
Between the lanterns, row on row,
And by their light a warrior stands,
A deadly blade in milk-white hands.
Cries challenge on the men who pass
And cuts them down like summer grass;
Rieves ev'ry wight of sword and life
And turns to widow each man's wife.
A thousand swords he sought for his hoard-coffer, and if that meant, as it inevitably did, a thousand souls as well, Goujun was not unhappy. A sword is only a piece of metal; a sword a man has died to keep acquires a lambent energy. On long nights Goujun would take each blade down, turn it in his hands, and relive the fight that had made the blade his own.
He had nine hundred and ninety-nine swords. One more, and he'd be finished. One more... And then what? his soul whispered. He turned a deaf ear. One more sword to complete the task he'd set himself and the feat would be accomplished: round, perfect, a treasure by itself-- And then what?-- to be held and caressed in his mind as he held the swords he'd won. And then what?
He shook his head. One last sword. One last chance to risk his life amid the heat and clang of exchanged blows-- Scrapes, scratches, and few enough of those. Your life? You've never even risked your skin.
A man was coming towards the bridge, slovenly robes open above his chest, an incense burner held lightly in his hand, which he swung like a basket. A mayfly, a party boy, and by his happy unseeing expression, one already drunk. Let him pass. This wasn't what Goujun wanted for his last opponent. A champion, one who trades me blow for blow, one last hard-fought battle--
Fool. Dreamer. There are no champions to equal you. Nine hundred and ninety nine matches against weak-armed tender-souled children. What an achievement! What a farce. End it here, and quickly, and then forget you ever made such a fool of yourself.
"Your sword," Goujun said, dry cracked voice through dry cracked lips.
"My sword?" the startled newcomer asked in a reedy voice. "What about it?"
"Give it to me."
He wouldn't even fight. He'd hand it over unprotesting. A farce indeed, and a fitting end to it.
The man pursed his lips, drunkenly considering.
"Give it!" Goujun bellowed.
The man laughed, a happy low chuckle. "Come and take it," the idiot said, and made to dash past Goujun.
Fury erupted. Goujun swung his sword to slice him clean in two. He wasn't there. Smoke was there, pungent, sweet-smelling, blinding. Goujun choked and coughed, rubbed at his streaming eyes-- or tried to, but something heavy and metal was between his arm and his face. Cold-sharp lay lightly against his throat, and a voice spoke into his ear from behind.
"I apologize for the incivility, but may I ask you to accompany me off this bridge? You're rather in the way, and have been these last three years."
Numbly Goujun walked off Benkei Bridge, the stranger's sword never moving from his throat, the stranger's other hand still gripping his shoulder.
"What are you going to do with me?" Goujun asked, voice calm and incurious to his ears though his heart stormed like a September typhoon.
"Take your sword and let you go. I presume you have sense enough not to come back?"
"If you take my sword you must take me with it. My services and my skills are yours from this day on. I will follow you wherever you go, and be your man in this world and the ones to come."
"Oh. Mh. Alright. Not a bad idea, actually. I accept." The sword disappeared.
Goujun turned to look at his new master. Dishevelled, unwashed, smelling of acrid tobacco under the sweet stink of the mosquito coil. The one man out of a thousand who could defeat him-- and so utterly unprepossessing. How humiliating. How mortifying. His pride and self-respect lay in broken shards at his feet---
---while phoenix-like, his soul winged high in exhilaration, that the world was still capable of such surprises and such change.