Sashi was growing tired of her reputation. Even in her self-imposed exile she was visited by a new challenger once a week, and every week she dug a new grave. Becoming the greatest swordsman, in her case swordswoman, had been her dream since she was a child. She’d practiced throughout her life, defying her family’s wishes, until she achieved it. Her sword became a part of her. She could survive on her blade alone, and she has done so for the past twelve years.
The emperor’s tournament was where her dream began to sour. Her reputation as a swordswoman was vaguely known in her village, but it was enough for her nomination when the messengers came. She traveled to the capital with excitement, ready to show everyone her swordsmanship, but she was ill-prepared for what was to come. She watched the first match from the fighter’s box. She remembered trying to focus on the fight, but kept stealing glances at the emperor and his elaborate throng of guards. She imagined herself among them. A round of applause had returned her attention to the fight or, rather, the end of it. The winner was bowing to the emperor while the other lay dead as servants came to drag him away and clean the blood before the next fight. Sashi never looked at the emperor again.
She had entered the tournament believing it would follow the rules of sparring and not being decided by fatal blows. After all, what was the purpose of a tournament of swords if only one skilled warrior remained? It was a waste. Sashi had not yet drawn her blade with the intent to kill, but she now knew she must if she were to survive.
Many of the other fighters wielded swords or axes. A few fought with weapons she had never seen before. Many wore armor of either leather or wood. Sashi wore only her grey kimono. She had brought nothing else believing only her sword was needed for these fights. She still believed this but was thankful she had forgone the more elegant kimono she considered wearing in the emperor’s presence. Her grey kimono allowed her full range of motion.
The large men in the fighter’s box believed she was lost and threw her out. She continued watching the tournament with the local peasants in the standing area until her name was called. She entered the fighting ground and was greeted with silence before laughter erupted. Her heart beat swiftly, as a bird’s after a long flight. The laughter died at the emperor’s gesture and her contender was announced. A large boulder of a man entered wielding a flail nearly as big as she was. One spike would be enough to end her.
The fight began. Sashi dodged the flail and delivered her first cut on the man’s waist just below his armor. It was shallow, barely drawing blood. He grunted and swung again as he turned on her. She was caught off guard and had to dive to escape from being impaled. She dodged again and gained her footing. Her enemy was slow but powerful. She would need to rely on her speed and her reach to sneak beneath the man’s armor if she were to stand a chance. She had to draw out the fight and use her superior stamina to her advantage. She used her small cuts to instigate the large man into attacking. He grew tired as the seconds went by. She maintained her efforts and delivered cut after cut. Each one increased the man’s rage and efforts until he was thoroughly spent. Her final cut, though shallow, was still enough to sever the carotid artery.
She fought six more men before she was proclaimed champion in the silence of the arena. The emperor did not acknowledge her victory, and the crowds left disappointed. Sashi went back to her village with the fortune awarded to her. She was hoping to leave the tournament behind when the first challenger approached. He came to the village claiming to be the brother of one of her victims in the arena. He further claimed dishonesty was the only explanation for her ability to defeat her brother. She dismissed the claim knowing the truth but accepted his challenge. She defeated him in three blows. When he failed to yield, she delivered a fourth and made his men carry his body back to be buried with his brother.
Three months passed and five more warriors challenged her. Sashi moved to the outskirts of her village where she could face the challengers without causing further trouble for her family. Her reputation spread across the country with every warrior she defeated, and more came to test her skills and prove her reputation as a deceit. Two years passed before her blade proved her reputation as genuine. Then the number of challengers increased. Each one hoping to defeat the greatest swordsman and claim the title for themselves. It was then that she moved to the island of the crescent moon in the southern sea.
Twelve years passed and countless challengers still made their way to her small island to claim their glory. She defeated every one of them. At times she felt her island held more graves than grains of sand. She was alone and surrounded by death. She was growing tired. Her dream had become her cage. Then the emperor’s messenger came.
A new tournament was to be held. As the greatest swordsman, she was expected to attend and again prove herself. She left her island for the first time in over a decade. She wore a grey kimono and brought only her wooden training sword. Her steel blade remained behind on the island where it would become its own legend.
She entered the arena to a hushed silence. No laughter followed this time. Only a deep respect and a tinge of fear filled the air. Her first opponent was eager but fear undid him as her wooden blade cracked his skull and he fell. She fought again and again without rest and without defeat. It seems the emperor had hosted the tournament with the sole purpose of usurping her reputation and grant her hard-won title to a new warrior, even if he did not prove worthy of it.
When no warriors remained, she returned to her island expecting many new challengers to approach her. A month passed without a single visit. Then a year. She hoped one might come who would want to learn from her. Someone she would pass her title to. She spent the rest of her days waiting for a warrior who would best her. None ever came.