The Riddle of Okano


What most I remember is first standing across from Okano. Our eyes met then locked. His were ice, thru which silvery veil lay emptiness.

It was I who issued the challenge, he nodded, grunting an affirmation, asking, “Where? When?”

“The field beyond the pagoda, we’ll start as the setting sun touches the horizon, on the day of the full moon.” He nodded then left.

Springing this trap proved simpler than anticipated. This would be my day! Vanquishing Okano promised to assure my wealth and prestige for years to come.

My plans were many, I had already scoped and studied the terrain and the conditions of light, I would approach from a direction guaranteeing advantage to myself. Every possibility was weighed and considered, there would be no miscalculations on my part.

He was there as agreed, back turned to me as I arrived, oblivious to my machinations, and clearly ignorant of my plan to steal the advantage. I stopped a respectful 10 paces away, then drew my weapon and waited. He turned about, carefully setting down his rice and chopsticks then casually lifted his weapon, letting its sheath drop on its own from the blade, as he positioned across from me.

I thought to myself, “Has he no respect for his weapon, or its maker?”

But then, just as quickly, another thought emerged. This was all wrong! Where was my hoped-for advantage, my assurance of victory? He stood before me unassailable, but looked no different than any other swordsman of past encounter. What was I missing?

I froze, unable to move, sensing his unfathomable skill and feeling his energy closing like a shadow reeling in the distance between us.

As the shadow’s web enveloped me, all burned deep and hot within, even while its eclipse blanketed my agony. My spirit stood locked within this fiery prison, I, the dragon’s meal soon to be.

Everything on which I planned to rely thawed into uncertainty. What remained left to actualize my strategy, as I stood exposed and helpless at the precipice?

Why did I ever throw the challenge? When is enough, enough? How could I have failed to see this?

Time stopped as I drifted without hope into his gaze, uprooted and torn from reality.

Eventually I broke, no longer able to stand, I crumbled to the ground and submitted. The full moon glimmered over the the pines. Nausea erupted, held in check only by my locked jaw.

I expected nothing but death. It’s what I would have served to my opponent. It’s what I deserved.

He stood motionless for what seemed an eternity, then turned about and left, leaving no words.

I expected ridicule and ruin on returning to town, my life as a warrior and protector surely ended, I would be nothing more than a ronin, left to wandering and catering to the vices of thugs and gangsters for sustenance.

As it turned out, he had said nothing, told no one. In fact, he had not even returned to the town.

Those who had wagered pressed me for a full account. At first, I gave no report, my inner shame unbearable. Finally, I told them to seek out Okano, he would give them what they sought (as perhaps he had to me).

Several months afterward, travelers found Okano’s body in a remote woods. He had been killed, apparently by a savage beast. I like to think it was a bear, or perhaps a tiger, or both. Nothing less would account for the terrible wounds reported.

But it posed a riddle, to which I have yet to find an answer.

Was not Okano able to effect his enormous power and influence over the beasts, as he had done with me?

Is it possible the beasts did not know how much I knew about what Okano could do?

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