There once were two men who followed the Way of the Warrior. This meant they were paragons of honour and honesty, of courage and benevolence, of loyalty and respect, and of justice and integrity. The older samurai was called Takeshi, which meant ‘warrior’ in his native tongue, and the other was a young man named Katsuo, which meant ‘victorious hero’. They were lovers, as Takeshi was leading Katsuo into teachings of Shudo, the Way of the Young, the traditional relationship for warriors. Followers of Shudo believe that the love of women fosters feminine weakness in a man. The practice of Shudo was held in high esteem, as the older warrior would lead his protégé into the true beauty of the Way of the Warrior.
To the misfortune of the men, they came to the attention of a Qilin, a spirit woman, which some in the West confuse with the unicorn. It is never wise to attract the attention of the supernatural. Some deer spirits have fickle natures, which belie the wisdom of their long lives.
As the men rode through the woods, the Qilin watched them with curious eyes. She saw the bond between the men, and their pride in that bond, and it was a challenge she couldn’t resist. The bond had to be tested. If they passed her test, she would gift them good luck. She had found that some people might break when tested, but their bond would mend, and would grow stronger and more beautiful just like a pot mended in the Kintsukuroi method. If they didn’t pass her test, she wouldn’t need to engineer their doom; they would make their own fate. That would be punishment enough.
The Qilin took the form of a beautiful woman called Shinju. She chose that name to be a warning, to give the two warriors a fighting chance. Shinju can mean ‘pearl’; however in theatrical tradition it can also mean ‘double suicide by lovers’. In the form of Shinju, the Qilin had skin as white and smooth as a pearl, and her hair was as lustrous as an oyster shell. Her kimono was of pearl-coloured silk decorated with a pattern of dancing white stags, and the antlers of each stag flowered with pink blossom, while their eyes were picked out with rubies. Her manner of dress was also meant as a subtle warning.
In this guise, she created a house and servants and a noble father. She knew the two warriors would seek shelter at the house for the night. She would be a daughter of the house. And so her trap was laid, with her as the bait.
Samurai are meant to be as clever with their wits as they are with their swords; and yet they are mere babes compared to one of the immortals. As it was, both men fell in love with Shinju the first time they saw her. Her fairy glamour spun a web around their hearts, trapping an unnatural love within their spirits. They could see only what she wanted them to see, hear only what she wanted them to hear. If they had been aware of the bewitchment, they might have noticed the unique smell of the Qilin, an odour resembling violets; instead, they took her scent for rare perfume.
“Greetings, great warriors. My father has sent me to serve you with tea, or would you prefer plum wine?” said Shinju, her eyes demurely turned to the floor. Her eyelashes lay dark against the cherry-blossom smoothness of her cheeks, and her brows fluttered like moths. Crystal bells chimed as she spoke. The men were enchanted. The web pulled tight around their hearts.
Manly Takeshi stepped forward and said, “We are, you and me, like two pine needles which will dry and fall – but never separate.” This love poem has become quite famous, though few know it was first spoken by the great warrior. His eyes met with Shinju’s. For just a moment, his heart struggled to escape the snare of her magic, knowing something was amiss. The spell used his own pride to wash away his doubt, and in place of that doubt a demon of jealousy was born.
Chivalrous Katsuo unsheathed his swords, his daito and his shoto, and offered them to Shinju, “Your beauty has cut me deeper than ever these blades could manage.” The swords glittered like rare jewels, and Shinju gave a small smile. She could feel the power in those swords. Blood is always linked to power, and immortals love power in any form.
Takeshi was enraged that Shinju seemed to be more impressed with Katsuo’s gesture than with his poem. Wasn’t he the greatest warrior? Wasn’t he the better educated? Katsuo was handsome, but surely the youth’s beauty was no match for his own magnificence. Takeshi was pulled two ways, by his love for Katsuo, and by the little demon of jealousy. His heart grew a turtle shell and his eyes glittered as sharp as the swords. He decided to take charge, as the elder warrior should.
“The maiden will attend only me,” said Takeshi. He put an imperious expression on his face, and gestured to Shinju. She shuffled over to his side, pretending to be obedient to his wishes.
Katsuo felt his own heart grow hotter and larger within the silver cage of his ribs, until he thought that Shinju and Takeshi must hear it sizzling like hot fat. “I beg to differ, my lord. She is a free woman, a daughter of the house. She can choose to serve us both, or just you if that is her desire … or she may wish to serve just me.”
The men faced off against each other, their faces red, and their shared love forgotten. Katsuo still held his twin swords in his hands. With a flip of his wrists, Takeshi would be dead upon the ground, and Katsuo’s honour would be smoke twisting in the breeze. The tension vibrated faster than a glass bell; a hammer could have shattered it.
Neither man was taking much notice of the Qilin, who was resisting the urge to smirk with delight. Making her expression seem humble and sweet, she said. “Oh please do not fight over me. I am not worthy of such a duel.”
“A duel!” exclaimed Takeshi. “What a splendid idea. Shall we meet again after we have made our sacrifices to the gods?”
For a moment, Katsuo hesitated. A duel was such a final option. Surely no mere woman was worth ruining such a friendship as he shared with Takeshi. He looked over to the girl. She was lovely, very lovely … with all the dainty grace of a doe. Yet, on some level, she troubled him.
Takeshi stepped between him and Shinju. “Are you agreeable to a duel? Or do you concede?”
“Concede? And lose all honour?” asked Katsuo. He was horrified that his mentor would even consider the possibility.
“I will allow you to retain your swords,” said Takeshi.
Such a gesture would relegate Katsuo to the status of a mere child. It wasn’t a kindness, it was an insult. Katsuo’s misgivings were all forgotten.
“Yes. A duel will settle this,” said Katsuo. He was confident he would win, as his mentor was older. Older meant slower. He would coat his glittering swords with Takeshi’s blood.
Takeshi went to the shrine of Bishamonten, the god of treasure, the god of war, and the god of warriors. There, he burnt incense and set out bowls of wine for his god. He asked his god that he retain his honour in the coming conflict. A pigeon, the sacred messenger of Bishamonten, flew through a window and landed at Takeshi’s feet. This was a sign that the god had indeed listened to his heart.
Katsuo went to the shrine of Benzaiten, sea-goddess, dragon-wife, the goddess of Beauty and Music. There, he cut a lock of his hair and burnt it at the altar. He prayed that he would find a true and pure love. A tiny green snake slithered up to his feet, a signal from Benzaiten that she had indeed listened to his heart.
Shinju went to the temple of Inari, both god and goddess, spirit of the rice, but she made no offerings. The Qilin had tested the Samurais’ bond, and found it wanting. She didn’t need to see the outcome of their duel. Instead, she returned to the form of a pure white Qilin with branching horns like a stag, and she danced on cleft hooves into the sacred arch of a vermillion tori. The last anyone knew of her was a cry that chimed like a woman’s crystal laughter, accompanied by the strong smell of violets, as she disappeared into the spirit world.
The samurai met for the last time. The spell ensured they could no longer remember the affection that they had for each other, as master and disciple, as friends, as lovers. Instead, each saw the other as a rival and as an enemy. They formally bowed to each other, and then took their fighting stance with their swords drawn.
“Make ready!” ordered Takeshi.
“I am more than ready,” said Katsuo.
Their swords flashed, and the air chimed. For many hours, the two men struggled. Both were peerless warriors and well matched. However, in the end, Takeshi’s experience favoured him, and he struck his friend a terrible blow.
The younger man fell to the ground, his blood staining the soil red. The Qilin’s spell shattered.
At that moment, Takeshi felt his rage leave him. Seeing Katsuo so injured shocked the older man to his senses. “What have I done,” he said, “I have brought dishonour to my family name.”
There is only one path left to a samurai who is disgraced: seppuku. Takeshi took his katana and with one swift motion he disembowelled himself. He lay beside Katsuo and drew his dying friend into his arms, holding Katsuo close as his protégé’s eyes grew dim. Takeshi’s pain from his wound was nothing compared to the pain in his heart. He saw the world darken, and the warriors perished together, wearing their blood as a cloak. Takeshi had regained his honour, and Katsuo had regained the love of Takeshi. The gods had answered their prayers appropriately.
It is never wise to attract the attention of the supernatural.