Last Letter to a Lost Love


By the time you’re reading this, I’ve left for a place you are safer not knowing, to do something you are safer not knowing, to someone you are safer not knowing.

I regret that I must jeopardize your safety.

I know that you do not speak Japanese; I know that you will have to find someone to translate this. This is intentional. Many of the things I write here do not make sense in English; the language simply does not map to the concepts. Rather than take the torturous effort to explain these things in English, I will simply defer the burden to the translator — whom I imagine will be my friend the Understudy. To him, I say thank you for the boons of the past. While the knowledge herein is meager repayment for such favors, it is the ultimate that I have to offer.

To you, Claudia, I will warn you not to trust a word the Understudy says, not even to trust the manner of his translation. I trust him, and I call him my friend — but neither he nor I would have any compunction against killing the other, if we but thought we could get away with it. He is the rarest of enemies, the sort which is more trustworthy than an ally; but do not forget that we are enemies. We have not forgotten.

Such is the way of our kind.

My story begins in Juarez, Mexico.

Wasted Youth

My first childhood memory is hunger being satiated. I was sitting in a Juarez landfill munching on a piece of discarded melon rind stained with coffee grounds. I did not know where Mother was; I did not know where I was; all I knew was for the first time in days I was not hungry. I was too young and naieve to understand how poor I was; I had no understanding of how pathetic it was that a three-year-old should have to forage in a landfill for a meal.

Mother—Maria Esmerelda Ramirez—was a teenage prostitute and heroin addict who was always looking for a way to America. I was born in El Paso, and she thought that would be enough to allow her to claim citizenship. It was not, and we were sent back to poverty in Juarez where we lived until I was five. Then Mother killed her pimp in an argument (over what, I don’t know) and we fled Juarez for America again, eventually coming to Chicago.

We took up residence in Cabrini Green, where Mother continued her same profession and same vices, leaving me to be raised on the streets. I was a junior Latin King before I was ten years old; before my twelfth birthday I was rolling baby Crips for pocket change. I had an arrest record an inch thick; in today’s parlance I would have been deemed a “superpredator” and likely be doing adult time in an Illinois penitentiary.

Near to Cabrini Green was an old theater named the Blackhorse. Long ago it had been a modest theater like any other, but now it only played pornographic films and catered to a crowd which only enjoyed the tawdry, debased and violent. When I was thirteen I heard rumors that Cruz, the elderly owner of the Blackhorse, had his own private screenings every afternoon before the evening crowd arrived. I was certain he was keeping the “best” material for himself, so one afternoon I broke into the Blackhorse and took a balcony seat, expecting to find puerile material for my puerile mind.

Instead, I saw Orson Welles’ The Third Man.

Cruz was a holdover from before the current age; he owned the Blackhorse when it was a respectable theater, and he wept at how far the community had fallen and how far his beloved theater had been degraded. But every afternoon, he would watch films from older times, better times, and remember when the theater smelled of fresh popcorn and was filled with the gentle noises of teenagers cooing over each other, instead of the harsh scent of disinfectant and crude sounds of base activity.

Thanks to Cruz, I saw Citizen Kane, The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all manner of movie classics. But the movie which saved my life—and which put me on my current road—was Sergio Leone’s The Magnificent Seven.

The Magnificent Seven is, on one level, a story about gangbangers who discover something better in their lives. Their leader, Chris, is hired by Mexican villagers to defend their settlement against the depradations of a vicious bandit. All they have to offer him is a pocket watch and a few coins. Chris is touched by this, and says “I’ve been paid a lot for my work before — but never everything.”

That resonated with me. I was always looking for the big score, the next baby Crip to roll, the next fight, the next—always the next, and never the now. I always wanted something more, but here Chris was telling me that nothing could be more than everything.

When I left the movie theater I evaluated my life, my goals, my ambitions. For the first time in my life, I realized how pathetic I was; for all my strength, for all my size, for all my ferocity, I was nothing more than a rat in a cage and I wished to be a free man. The cage was Cabrini. Getting out of it would be hard enough, but then I would be a free rat. Becoming a man required something more — it required being a man, not a rat.

The first step towards being a man, I thought, was to take care of my family.

I returned to Cabrini, to the apartment Mother and I shared. I found her engaged in “commerce” with a drug courier. Such acts of commerce were de rigeur in Cabrini, in that it greatly diminished the price of heroin. For the first time in my life, I saw how pathetic my mother was, how degraded she had become by the needle and her addiction. For the first time in my life I felt shame at the fact my mother was a prostitute; for the first time in my life I felt hot, murderous rage at the courier who had her mounted.

A brawl ensued. I was large for my age, strong, vigorous; the courier was slightly built and completely naked, which presented him with some tactical disadvantages. All in all it was a pretty fair fight, up until I removed his testicles in a particularly effective manner.

Note that I say effective, not foul. As a child I would have declared that I was a connoisseur of the dirty trick. As a grown man I declare there are no dirty tricks in war, only effective methods. A dirty trick is just the label one attaches to an effective method the other fellow uses.

I was beginning to turn around to face Mother, to tell her we were leaving Cabrini behind, that we were going to escape this cage and become free, when Mother shot me and struck with four rounds of six.

“Goddammit, God dammit,” she shouted at me as she put the revolver to my head, squeezing the trigger again and again, growing increasingly frustrated as she realized she was out of bullets. “Who the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

I crawled away, slowly bleeding to death. She followed me to the staircase, kicking me the entire time, cursing me for being born, cursing me for destroying her life, cursing me for things I didn’t even know I’d been done. As I crawled away, pulled myself down the stairwell, over the broken glass of crack vials and mindless of the dirty needles plunging into my hands, I could hear Mother shout:

“I wish I’d killed you before you’d ever been born!”

That was the last time I saw my mother.

The Fathers

Police were often in Cabrini, executing warrants or responding to shots fired. I was fortunate that police returning from a warrant found me as I was crawling out the entryway. I don’t remember being found; I only remember waking up in a hospital several weeks later. The doctors told me I’d spent four minutes dead before returning to the world, and it took over thirty-five liters of blood to stabilize my condition — seventy-seven blood units, if the detail matters.

Child Protective Services visited me almost immediately and told me a good foster home had been found for me while they tried to find my mother. They’d been searching for weeks to no avail, but were certain she’d turn up soon. I didn’t want them to find Mother, because I didn’t want CPS to get shot and I didn’t want Mother to know I was alive. Nor did I want to go into the foster system. So, being a modestly enterprising lad, I broke out of the hospital and knocked on the door of Our Lady of Grace.

Fathers Bennett and Dominguez were the parish priests, both of them Jesuits, serious as only that most martial sect of Christianity can be. They agreed to house me, feed me, but demanded that I develop my mental and spiritual dimensions. I agreed, thinking that they would be easy to manipulate; but before three days were out, I realized how much more powerful they were — in their character, in their mien, in their essence — than the hardest gangbanger I’d ever known. Something in me responded to that strength, sought it for myself; and in time I found myself studying the Catholic doctrine of ius belli, of Christian forbearance, of the Christian tradition of arms. I fancied myself the centurion who asked Christ to heal his ill servant, the centurion whom Christ respected for his faith.

Of course, my development to this state was not perfect.

I was enrolled in a very traditional Catholic high school, where I was constantly in the lowest rank of academic achievement. I was mocked for being a dullard, for being poor, for being an orphan, for my mother being a whore, for my father being a solicitor of whores; and I responded to mockery the only way I knew, which was with fist and blood. Fathers Bennett and Dominguez tried to teach me Christian forbearance, but at that time it was a lesson long in the learning. Finally, they enrolled me in a boxing class. If I was going to fight, they decided, at least it was going to be disciplined fighting.

This last-ditch effort worked. I saved my aggression, my hostility, my shame, my rage, for the ring, where I could use them with positive sanction. I lost, of course. All those emotions lend power at the price of precision and clarity of mind. Soon I learned, thanks to the boxing ring, that all those emotions were only holding me back; to become the free man I aspired to be, to finally leave the rat in the Cabrini cage behind, I had to get over my past.

With the help of Fathers Bennett and Dominguez, I did just this. I graduated from high school with a moderate gradepoint, but excellent senior-year marks; and shortly before my eighteenth birthday I won the Illinois Golden Gloves in the Open Division, where I was competing against men who had inches and stones on me.

I had transcended my past, up until my past transcended me.

Objects in the Rearview Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

After graduating from high school and winning a scholarship from the Golden Gloves, I decided to seek Mother out. I wanted to tell her that I’d made it, that I’d escaped, that I was going to go to college and make something of myself, that I was going to study theology and enter seminary, join the Jesuit order, become a respected man and servant of Christ. Fathers Bennett and Dominguez tried to persuade me otherwise, but I reminded them of the Biblical imperative to honor one’s parents—regardless of whether one’s parents had returned that honor. In the end, they thought I was a fool to seek out the woman who had tried to murder me; but I was a fool in God’s hands, doing what I felt was God’s will, and they respected my folly for it was folly in the name of the Creator.

I returned to Cabrini and searched for Maria Esmerelda Ramirez. I had no luck. I found no one who knew anyone of that name, until I found a heroin addict who said he used to share needles with her. She ODed only a few days after she shot me, which explains why Child Protective Services had so much trouble finding her. Once I found about Mother’s death, I tried to find her gravesite to pay proper last respects. The junkie didn’t know where she’d been buried, but suggested her dealer, a fellow named Snowball, might know.

Off I went in search of Snowball, not knowing that finding him would be one of the pivotal events in my life.

In the few years I’d been off the street the Asian black-tar heroin craze had ended and crack regained its primacy among street drugs of choice. Snowball had diversified to suit the needs of the market and dealt in crack and heroin out of the top floor of a turn-of-the-century brownstone near Cabrini. At one time, Cabrini was a posh part of town, but in the last few decades everything that was once upscale was now downscale.

I entered the crackhouse and made my way up the rickety flights of stairs, passing many strung-out crack zombies and gangbangers carrying weapons and laden down in gold chains and bizarre jewelry. Tensions were high, as always; one symptom of crack addiction is paranoia, and when a dozen paranoids are put in an enclosed space with easy access to lethal weapons…

… it is enough to say it is not a recipe for domestic tranquility.

I arrived on the fourth floor and announced myself to the lieutenant. I was Señor Ramirez, here to speak with Señor Snowball, about Maria Esmerelda Ramirez. The lieutenant went off into the drug laboratory to tell Snowball about my arrival, and Snowball soon came out to speak with me.

I discovered then that I had misunderstood the dope-slurred words of the junkie. The dealer’s nom de street was not Snowball. It was No Balls. A nomenclature people hung on him, no doubt, after I deprived him of his testicles five years prior.

He wasn’t more than two steps out of the lab when our eyes met and we recognized each other. I was frozen for a moment as I put things together: I forcibly emasculated Mother’s dealer, and a few days later Mother overdoses on heroin. Or, at least, the junkie told me Mother overdosed… but looking at No Balls, I was certain that what he murdered her by giving her uncut heroin, and letting her prepare a dose as if it was her usual heavily-cut dope.

The realization did me little good, though. No Balls did not have to waste time figuring out what happened to Mother, because he already knew; and in the two seconds I was putting it all together, No Balls was lifting a pistol and putting a single nine millimeter slug through my heart.

As my knees gave way and I collapsed to the floor, I was vaguely awareof the crackhouse erupting into an orgy of gunfire and violence as every paranoid gun-toting fiend decided that single gunshot had been meant for him or her. I lay there on my side as my vision faded to black and white, watching No Balls and his lieutenant retreat into the safety of the fortified laboratory. I was going to die; of that there was no question. I had sustained a mortal wound, one which made survival impossible. I lay there dying, mentally screaming as loud as I could about the unfairness of it all, pleading with God to spare me, knowing that God would not. My eyes closed —

— and in the midst of the panic and terror, I heard a clear voice. Perhaps it was the voice of God.

You are going to die.

The voice was so calm, so still, that for a moment even the gunfire faded into quiescence.

How, then, will you live?

I was dying — but not dead.

I was going to die — but I yet lived.

My eyes opened and I saw the world as now I see it; I knew where everyone was in the building, I tracked bullets in mid-flight even as they entered bodies and sundered flesh; I was aware of everything, right down to heartbeats and the moments that live in between ticks of the clock.

I knew I had at the most fifteen seconds before I died.

I knew I was going to dedicate the next fifteen seconds to bringing my mother’s murderer, and my own, to justice.

I stood up. It is impossible for a living man to stand up without any blood pressure — but fortunately I was not a living man. The hoodlums turned towards me, faces ashen as they saw Lazarus rise from his grave, and they emptied their pistols at me in an attempt to put me back into it. I felt round after round tear through my corpse, and I laughed the corpse’s laugh. I was already going to die; what did they think they could do, kill me? I gave them my body. I let them have it; it was just a box to keep my soul in.

I stood there for three or four seconds as I contemplated how to kill No Balls. I had no weapons, which gave the task a certain aesthetic sensibility it had previously lacked. To kill is no great feat: but to kill, to kill proficiently and expertly, with taste and artistic sensibility, is not to kill but to Kill; and no higher form of art exists.

I found my contemplations interrupted by the hail of bullets streaming through me. As often happens with inspiration, I found it in an unlikely place. Galileo was inspired by a swinging church chandelier, Newton by a falling apple, me by the stinging annoyance of another gunshot.

I broke into a run, crossing the room, moving faster than living men have a right to move. The barricaded door shattered into splinters before I even touched it, for even dead things can be Killed. As I crossed the room the hoodlums continued to shoot at me, following me even as I raced into the laboratory, even as I passed No Balls, even as I smiled at him and had just a mere moment to enjoy the look of horror on his face as Death ran past.

And then Death accidentally ran out a fourth-floor window, which has ever since taught Death to always look where he’s running.

I fell four floors to the pavement, laughing the entire way. I landed, face up, on top of an automobile. Just before my vision faded and I died, I saw the fourth floor go up in a ball of orange flame.

I had drawn gunfire into the drug lab, you see.

Gunfire and jars of ether and acetone make for a very fatal combination.

I Killed one man that day. Twenty-two others died to enable that one Kill.

It was a good trade.

The Realms of Thought

For two months I existed formless and void. Perhaps I was dead; perhaps I was alive in a way it is given to few to experience. I neither know nor care to surmise. As best as I can describe it, I was a mind forever voyaging. At times I was simply mind divorced from identity, everyone and no one all at once. In this strange land of ideas and concepts without language or structure to support them, I met other travelers: a poet on the banks of the Seine with writer’s block, an English teacher in Japan who yearned to be in the movies, more. From all these people I learned things. I learned to speak French, I learned to love building things, I learned the peculiar culture of Japan. All these people learned something from me as well: the poet went on to write a well-received piece about despair and hope in Cabrini Green, the English teacher finally understood what the subjunctive was, more.

Some would call this magic, or sorcery, or psychic phenomena. I do not know the truth of those claims. This is simply the Art: my teacher in it never gave me any other word for it. It is the legacy of those who live in the shadows, unable to step out into the light for fear of coming to the attention of things beyond any nightmare. We are the thieves who cannot be caught, the wizards who wield impossible powers, the spies condemned to never come in from the cold, the warriors who struggle to keep the peace. This is the Art: and that is all that I may explain to you about it, dear Claudia.

I am forbidden from ever setting foot fully into the light.

I became slowly aware of another entity in the Realms of Thought. First one, singular, and then multiples. Just as I was aware of them, they were aware of me. Communication was difficult. So much of how we talk to each other is tied up in the semantic markup of language that it is a labor of Hercules to try and converse without any language of any sort, in naked ideas and concepts and experiences. But after two months of this voyaging I was able to do so, albeit in a limited fashion. I cannot accurately express to you in the Japanese language — or in any language at all — how beautiful and elegant it is to be free of the constraints of language. Please accept my sincere apologies for not being able to do it justice.

One entity, one consciousness, had long been near my own. Not near in the sense of space: space is a meaningless concept in the Realms of Thought. Near in the sense that this entity kept its own thoughts, conceptions, similar to my own but not identical. It was a tacit form of acknowledgment, of telling me ‘I see you,’ while still being patient enough to let me make the first overture.

Finally, I began with a tentative — hello.

Hello, brother, was the idea returned to me.

Who are you?

Brother, there is no time.

Time for what?

Your body is dying, brother, kept alive by machines which breathe for you, fed by a machine which nourishes you. You must either return to your body or else travel to the Realm Beyond Thought.

The Realm Beyond Thought?

If you do not know where it is, you cannot get there.

But how can I get there without knowing where it is?

Ah. There’s the rub. Return to your life, brother. Please.

And what then?

With a pervasive sense of wry humor I received, You spend the rest of your life trying to get there, of course.

At that moment, I woke up. I was in a hospital bed, my body atrophied away, a ventilator breathing for me, a feeding tube in my stomach. Beside the bed, a kind-looking Japanese gentleman of about fifty years’ age sat, a gentle smile upon his face.

“Welcome back to your life, brother,” he greeted me.

It’s a Kind of Magic

Thus was I introduced Akira Shimura, who would become my mentor in the Arts, my teacher of arms, my grandfather, my enemy, my liege. He applied his Arts, and my body was restored to vigor in just the space of seven breaths.

I urge you, Claudia: do not think of the Arts as magic, despite their magical appearance. If it was magic then only a chosen few, a special elite, would ever be able to aspire to these heights. But this is not magic; there is no such thing as magic. There are only the Arts. What we might do, anyone might do, until such time as they make an irrevocable choice to not be able to do these things.

Including yourself, dear Claudia.

Do not step out into the light unless you are certain you wish to renounce the shadows and the Arts thereof.

Motives Most Noble

I went to Japan with my newfound mentor, the samurai Akira Shimura. On the flight I learned his story: how he was born into a samurai caste in 1825, how in 1842 he had his own Enlightenment which ushered him into the Arts, how he helped lead the peaceful transition from Imperial to civil rule in the late 1800s, how he saw the Land of the Rising Sun be re-Imperialized in the 1920s and 30s, how his best friend was imprisoned and tortured by the Imperial services for ‘insufficient patriotic fervor,’ up to the moment his wife and children were killed in the Nagasaki blast.

He told me then of how nuclear fire forged his resolve. Tojo had been seduced by a dream of Imperial glory and he re-established a samurai order. It is easy for a tyrant to hijack the past to justify the present. It is much harder for a tyrant to hijack the present. As the senryaku reads, “Bring back a corpse to borrow its spirit.” Shimura-sama thought it inevitable that the corpse of bushido would be borrowed to justify tyranny; the ideas were too powerful, too strong, for any tyrant to resist. After Tojo did just that, and Shimura-sama’s family perished for it, Shimura-sama devoted his life to restoring the samura so that not only could future tyrants not resurrect the samurai, but so that the samurai might keep tyrants from arising.

When we arrived in Osaka I took residence in Shimura-sama’s home, a surprisingly large place home to forty-eight souls. There were forty-seven of us students and Shimura-sama. All of our goals were the same: to one day be worthy of Shimura-sama telling us, “You are Shimura,” of his formally adopting us, making us samurai in formality as well as in character.

He had not done so even once since World War Two.

Train Like You Fight; Fight Like You Train

Most of us at the School (as we called it) were not practitioners of the Arts. All of us knew of it, but few of us had experienced our first satori. There were only two among the students: myself and Toshiro Toranaga. Toshi was brash and vain and arrogant and I loved him for it. He was the brother I never had in every way that mattered. We fought together, we trained together, and never did I best him in training.

There was Michiko Hayasu, a Japanese-Polynesian from Hawaii; and she taught me about the mystery and power of passion and love. I could list the other forty-four, but that would drag this letter on far longer than it already is, and it is already too long by half.

We trained ourselves to the limit of human potential: the physical limit, the mental limit, the moral limit. Fourteen hours each day we were either working out, studying or practicing. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, the music of the Beatles, how to use a Remington 700PSS sniper rifle, explosives, parachuting, swordsmanship, Zen painting, civil engineering — we studied warfare and peace, how to destroy and how to build.

We kept this incredible tempo for six years before things changed.

mushin and zanshin

It all began with two things, mushin and zanshin. Small things, in the scheme of things. But that is how the greatest storms start… from very small things.

I was sparring with Toshi on the rooftop, the two of us barefoot on the hot red clay tiles, keeping our balance while holding our bokken at the ready, our entire souls focused on each other while Shimura-sama watched. Perhaps Toshi saw a hint of unevenness in my eyes, perhaps I caught a glimpse of irresolution in his. My hands moved first, but Toshi’s bokken landed first—a perfect killing blow. Perhaps a tenth of a second later my own blow landed, and it, too, would have killed. Perhaps. Toshi kept his balance effortlessly, while I lost mine and tumbled off the edge of the roof and into the garden below.

“So, Akita,” he called to me — they could not easily pronounce Jamos, you see, so they made do, “— that is another match I’ve won, neh?”

I collected myself, brushed the worst of the dirt off, and climbed back up the ladder to the roof. As I set foot on the red tiles, Shimura-sama bowed to me. “The match is yours, Akita.”

Toshiro lost his composure and demanded to know how the match could go to me. Had he not scored the first killing blow? Had he not made me lose my balance, forced me off the roof?

“Yes, Toranaga-san,” Shimura-sama answered him, “but had the blades been real, it would be you who died.” Shimura-sama came to that determination based on mushin and zanshin. Neither term translates readily into English, and the good Understudy will probably fumble greatly with the translation. To spare him the embarassment — and to make it clear I could do no better — I will attempt.

Zanshin translates roughly as “commitment” or “emotional intensity.” It is single-mindedness of purpose, focus, determination, drive, all these things blended into one. It is to let a task take over your entire mind to the point where it obliviates everything else, even your own identity. The task becomes one’s raison d’etré. It occupies every thought, infuses every motive, guides every action. Zanshin, in its purest form, is unspeakably powerful — and unspeakably dangerous to the individual’s notion of self.

Mushin translates roughly as “emptiness.” It is to let go of every ambition, every thought, the wish for life or the thirst for death, the desire to wrap oneself in glory or to live in the simple splendor of anonymous humility. Once in mushin, everything that is human evaporates away like morning dew. Freed from the chains of desire, of doubt, of thought, of all that is consciousness, one may completely embrace ku, the Great Void. It, like its brother, finds its ultimate culmination in the total abandonment of the self.

To hold both is to make one’s dwelling in a cold and lonely place of death and murder. The Arts live there in fullness, but only if you are strong enough to bear them.

It is from this cold and lonely place that I pen this letter.

Exile from Eden

Toshiro was incensed after the match, decrying mushin and zanshin as stupid relics of the samurai past. He was better than I was — a claim I freely admitted — and Shimura-sama was a stupid old goat to award me victory.

“It’s because you’re not Japanese,” he finally spat at me. “You’re the only gaijin student here. He has to throw you a bone every now and again. Don’t take it too seriously, Akita. You’re never going to be Shimura.”

I asked him what he meant by this; after all, were we all not already samurai? Wasn’t the Shimura name just icing on the cake, after the honor we had already given ourselves by dedicating ourselves to our cause?

“Oh, sure,” Toshiro responded. “Settle for that. You never had a chance anyway. The Old Man hasn’t adopted anyone in fifty years, Akita. He sure won’t adopt a gaijin before a Japanese.”

At that moment, we heard Shimura-sama clear his throat from across the room. We did not know he was there; we did not know how much he had overheard; we did not hear him enter. Shimura-sama could often be sneaky that way, in the way common to men who study sneaks the better to find them. “Toranaga-san,” he said, and then I knew the news was bad. “You will never be Shimura.”

I stood there in stunned silence. Toshiro stood silently, too, trying to keep his face calm while every muscle in his face betrayed his desperate scramble for the right words. Ten seconds turned into a minute, a minute turned into three, Zen seconds following one after another connected only by faith that another would occur. Shimura-sama broke the silence with, “Why are you still here?”

Toshiro turned and ran away from the compound.

I would see him only one more time after that, and that I regret. He was a vain, arrogant braggart. I loved him for it.

The Beginning’s End

Six weeks later Shimura-sama brought us all together for an important announcement. For years, decades, Shimura-sama had a modus vivendi with the werewolves, with the Yakuza, with the Serpent Kings, with the Kami Lords, with all the powerful inhabitants of the city and all the practitioners of the various Arts. It is the way of our kind in the East; there are too many people packed into too small an area for us to avoid contact with each other. There must be treaties, there must be pacts, else we would all be locked in ultimately-futile cycles of violence. The current set of pacts dated back to the fall of Imperial Japan, and had been inviolate for these last sixty years. But recently the Yakuza had violated the Concord, and open hostilities between Shimura-sama and the Yori family of Yakuza were likely.

The Yakuza planned to send their soldiers against the School that very night, Shimura-sama’s sources said. It was our mission to repel them and to ensure the safety of our liege and our home. It was a mission we entered into with fervor and alacrity. Assault rifles were removed from the gun lockers; Miyamoto blades were taken down from the sword racks; body armor was donned, o-yoroi fastened, hachimaki tied around our foreheads.

The Yakuza came for us that night. They all died, cut down by sword or automatic weapons fire. Those who fled were shot or chased and bayonetted.

Eighteen of the enemy died; six of our forty-seven gave their lives defending our home and our liege.

We did not have time to grieve, nor even to bury our dead. Within a minute of fending off the Yakuza’s assault we took the offensive, leaving the School to strike at a Yakuza-run pachinko parlor. We took five casualties; the Yoris, twelve, including one of their principal lieutenants. And so the bloodshed went on, one night after another for a week, our numbers and the Yoris dwindling by twos, by threes, by fives and dozens. Eventually our numbers were down to a dozen and the Yoris perhaps thirty. We were both locked in a pas de deux of mutually assured destruction, a senseless war of attrition which would end in annihilation for one side and ruin for the other.

I went to Shimura-sama with my concerns and asked him precisely why the Yori clan had made war upon us. Shimura-sama grew angry and agitated, and reminded me of the meaning of the word samurai — “to serve”.

He did not need to remind me, of course: I asked so that I might better serve his cause, not out of an insubordinate and prideful desire to serve my own cause. It was this, being excoriated in front of my peers — my troops — which gave rise to an important question of honor: was my duty to Shimura-sama, or to his cause?

In the Hagakure we are told that a samurai ought be able to make any moral decision in the space of seven breaths. I am no samurai at all by that metric, for it took me twelve. Eventually, I realized that Shimura-sama, being samurai, devoted his life to a cause; and if I wished to best serve Shimura-sama the man, my first loyalty had to be to Shimura-sama’s cause, heedless of all other concerns. I could not serve Shimura-sama’s cause without first learning what his cause was, or why his enemies sought to destroy him. To learn that, I would need to speak to his enemies.

So I betrayed Shimura-sama that night.

The Truth Will Not Make You Free

I gathered the twelve of us who still yet lived. I reminded them of their oaths of fealty and obedience, and stood on my authority as shidoshi, seniormost student. We were going to strike at the heart of the Yoris and kidnap Ichiro Yori himself, oyabun of the clan; we were going to interrogate Ichiro Yori for intelligence; then we were going to dispose of Ichiro Yori in such a way as to make all the Yakuza fear crossing the School again. Many of us would die in the attempt, but whoever survived would possess detailed information on the enemy’s plans, information which could be used to save Shimura-sama’s life.

There was some objection to this plan, mostly because Shimura-sama had not bid us capture and interrogate prior to this point. It was enough, Shimura-sama had said, to kill the Yori who came after us and to plot the assassination of Ichiro Yori. Interrogation, he continually reminded us, was neither expected nor required. So of course my troops asked me if Shimura-sama had approved this plan.

I betrayed Shimura-sama by telling them yes, Shimura-sama approves.

I will not bore you with details about how a dozen samurai infiltrated the Yori compound that night; I will not bore you with tales of flashing steel and suppressed assault rifles. There is no glory to be found in these tales. There is only violence, death and grief. Two of us died as we fought our way to Ichiro Yori’s bedchamber. We entered and pacified Ichiro Yori and his wife. Ichiro Yori we bound and gagged; his wife, we interrogated.

Ichiro Yori was a very wise man, you see, merciless and unyielding. We could no more trust anything he said than anything Lucifer himself were to say. If we asked him questions he would lie to us, trusting in our own ignorance and his endless cunning to save the day. But Ichiro Yori’s wife was a different matter. He was a very traditional oyabun and married a very traditional sort of woman, a woman whose marriage had been filled with abuse, with terror, with fear. And thus we threatened her in the most effective manner we knew. If she told us what we wished to know, we would spare her husband’s life; and the instant she lied or exaggerated, we would kill him.

Irrational as it may seem, people whose lives have been spent in torment often fear losing the torment more than they anticipate the freedom. The torment has been with them for so long that it becomes their friend, their rock, their constancy in the world. Whatever may come and go, the torment endures, and that is the root of why our threat was so devastatingly effective.

The Lady Yori told us everything she knew about Yori’s feud with Shimura-sama, which was quite a lot. Why was Yori trying to kill Shimura-sama?

Because the Chinese Triads were coming to town.

Why were the Triads important?

Because Yori was afraid Shimura-sama was going to betray him to the Chinese.

But why? What could Shimura-sama say to make the Triads wage war on the Yakuza?

We could not believe what Lady Yori told us.

Shimura-sama and Ichiro Yori were both at Nanjing.

I was now faced with a decision. Left alive, the Yoris would certainly betray Shimura-sama to the Triads; and yet … the prospect of murdering an old man and woman did not sit well with me. Seven breaths later I murdered an old man and woman. We ten survivors faded away like shadows.


We returned to the School before we had our great argument. We ten, we ten who had been like brothers, were now fractious and disjoint. I shouted that our oaths were to Shimura-sama’s cause. They shouted that he lied about his cause. They shouted that our oaths could be taken back because we were tricked into giving them. I shouted that an oath is what it is precisely because it cannot be taken back. They shouted Shimura-sama was a war criminal, a mass murderer, a tyrant, a monster. I shouted, Shimura-sama is our liege!

Like so many things in life, none of us were wrong about anything.

Nine renounced their oaths that night, abandoned the way of bushido, walked away from their liege in his hour of greatest need.

Me? I stood there, the last student in the school founded by a war criminal and mass murderer specifically for the purpose of creating a cadre of elite bodyguards to shield him from the consequences of his actions.

I cannot conceive of words to describe the bile and despair of that long night.

In the morning I spoke with Shimura-sama. I told him about the prior night’s activities; I told him that we all knew about Nanjing; I told him that we all knew why he established the School; I told him that I was the only student he had left; I told him I did not want to hear one single word from him ever again. I was going to die on his behalf, but that did not mean I had to tolerate one extraneous syllable falling from his lips.

He spoke, of course. “Akita,” he said, voice sounding infinitely tired, “the Chinese already knew about Yori and I before they ever left the mainland.”


Shimura-sama shook his head no. “Toshiro Toranaga,” he said, and that was all the explanation needed.

My brother, my best friend, Toshiro Toranaga, had sold all of us out to the Chinese in order to appease his wounded pride. Because I bested him in a bokken match, a match which by rights he should’ve won, Toshiro left the School hell-bent on revenge. And so Toshiro went to the mainland holding one vital piece of evidence in his hand, something he had discovered during his many years at the School.

How many years did Toshiro know Shimura-sama’s secret?

How many years did Toshiro keep the secret in strictest confidence?

And now, Toshiro gave it all up, just to incite a war which would destroy the School, kill thirty-seven of his fellow students and twice that many Yori, and ultimately take the life of his sworn liege?

All over a bokken match?

My brother, the vain and arrogant braggart whom I loved, betrayed us all. Because of him, my fiancée Michiko was dead. Because of him, Ieyasu and Ai-chan and Sumiyori and … all of them, dead, because of his pride and his hubris and his hatred. Hatred of Shimura-sama, for telling him that he had been bested just once. Hatred of me, for besting him. Hatred of himself, for being bested.

My brother was a mad dog and had to be put down.

“Shimura-sama,” I said through clenched teeth. “Is it within your power to deliver a message to Toranaga-san?” Toranaga-san, not Toshiro, not brother. Toshiro was already dead, and lived only in my happy memories. Toranaga-san was who remained, and he would be in my thoughts only until his death and would warrant no further thoughts, not even of remorse.

Shimura-sama indicated that it was.

“The Ginza,” I told Shimura-sama, “tonight. Tell him he will need a very sharp sword.”

Mushin and zanshin, Redux

Toranaga-san’s descent into evil was stopped by those same meager things that first set him upon it: mushin and zanshin.

Toranaga-san arrived at the Ginza at the appointed time, looking dapper as if he were attending an art gallery. Savile Row suit, silk necktie in a chrysanthemum motif, a handkerchief the color of blood tucked into his breast pocket. He was every inch the picture of samurai martial glamour. He wore his war-face like a badge of honor, his wounded pride like a medal. God, what mien he possessed! He set foot on the Ginza like it was meant for him alone, he held his sword without any fear of police. He inspired fear and immediate obedience from the terrified civilians on the Ginza; some of them were so overpowered by his very presence that they threw themselves to the ground and made obeisance, begging this figure of war to spare their unworthy lives.

I saw all this with astonishing clarity. I saw every pore in his skin, I saw the weave of his suit, the onyx of his cufflinks, the predatory curve of his sword. I was empty, formless, without shape or substance, and in my emptiness I could feel his passion, his fervor, his fanatical devotion to his own pride.

He lacked mushin, the Great Emptiness; he was too focused on things of this world to embrace the Void.

Nor did he possess zanshin, Singleness of Purpose. Musashi wrote, “always focus on your one true purpose.” Toranaga-san did not know his true purpose; was it to annihilate me, or to heal his wounded pride, or to wrap himself in vainglory? All three purposes were related, but all three were distinct. He did not have a single purpose that overrode all other things, all other concerns, and zanshin eluded him.

His pride was so great that he felt he needed neither mushin or zanshin to kill the gaijin samurai.

As for me? I was without form, empty, void, and singlemindedly obsessed with sending Toranaga-san's immortal soul off to final judgment. I was lost, without even identity to call my own, all distinctions between myself and everything else obliviated, sacrificed on the altar of purpose. I was Jamos Carlos Lobos Ramirez, I was the tourist on the Ginza recoiling in fear from Toranaga-san’s blade, I was the asphalt under his feet, I was the air he breathed, I was the sword in his hand. All of Creation was of one mind in that pristine and perfect moment: we were the All, and the will of the All was the total destruction of Toranaga-san.

I was the All as I watched Toranaga-san’s head come off, detached at the crown of his skull in a shower of bone shards and brain matter. I felt the cadaveric spasm of his hand on my hilt, felt the thump of his body on my sidewalk, felt revulsion at the way his brains sprayed over the lens of my camera.

Then the moment passed, and I was merely Jamos Carlos Lobos Ramirez once more, sitting in a hotel room eight hundred meters away, a smoking sniper rifle in my hands.

Toranaga-san was intent on killing me in a way to prove his supremacy and restore his wounded pride.

I was merely intent on killing Toranaga-san.

This is the power of mushin and zanshin.

The Last Night of my Youth

I disposed of the rifle in the sewer and made my way back to the School.

The Chinese would be coming soon to kill Shimura-sama, long-overdue retribution for whatever Shimura-sama’s crimes were at Nanjing. I was going to die protecting my liege. I found no comfort in it, no solace. I tell you this truly: the true taste of duty is salt and ashes.

We sat there together, Shimura-sama and I, waiting for neither of us to remain. First one hour, then two, then four. Shimura-sama was no longer the figure of confidence, competence, quiet wisdom to which I had grown accustomed; now he looked old, tired and ashamed.

I was ashamed of him, and I stewed in my bitter shame.

Finally, two hours to midnight, I could no longer hold back my vitriol. I angrily demanded to know the truth, whatever it might be: the truth about Nanjing, the truth about the School, the truth about why the Chinese were coming for us, the truth about everything. I was going to die in his service, and when I met my God I wished to be able to tell him the truth about the cause for which I had violated nearly every Commandment.

Shimura-sama sighed, and I knew the story involved was long.

I could not have guessed how long, or how painful.

A Prelude to War

In the 1920s Hirohito fell under the sway of an evil cabal of advisors, people who whispered evil to him gussied up in a veneer of nationalism, of patriotism, of a return to Shogunate glory. Shimura-sama’s best friend was jailed and tortured for showing “insufficient patriotism”, merely for publishing a haiku suggesting war was ill-considered. It was in this backdrop that Hirohito approached the Shimura, the ancestral Left Hand of the Emperor, the samurai cadre most loyal to the Throne of Heaven. The Emperor told Shimura-sama of the plans to invade and pacify Manchuria, and the importance of creating a supply depot in the city of Nanjing. In order to do this, it would be necessary to pacify the city by overwhelming force.

Once Hirohito left, Tojo gave Shimura-sama an explicit order: go to Nanjing and kill every living thing.

Shimura-sama quietly objected to this. Pacification of the city could be achieved without such extreme measures, and in the long run might only serve to encourage partisans. Tojo did not take this quiet protest very well, and pointedly reminded Shimura-sama of his oaths.

Shimura-sama relented, and went off to Nanjing to pacify the city. His lieutenant was one Ichiro Yori. They went and put the city to the sword, Ichiro out of racist hatred for the Chinese, Shimura-sama out of …

… out of what?

Shimura-sama did not have a good answer, except to fumble towards a philosophical question: what are the limits of duty? Shimura-sama slew not because he wanted to commit a war crime, but because he feared the consequences of not committing a war crime. To Shimura-sama, duty was so ingrained that to abandon his oaths, to abandon his service, to deny an order from his liege, would be to betray two thousand years of heritage, to turn his back on a way of life which Shimura-sama fervently believed was, on balance, one of the brightest lights of hope for humanity. To walk away from bushido, the Way of the Warrior, was as inconceivable as if MacArthur were to suddenly decide that “duty, honor, country” was meaningless jingoism. In a thousand years, Shimura-sama knew, Nanjing would be remembered as an atrocity, a crime against all of humanity. But the alternative, for Shimura-sama to have walked away and let bushido die from the Earth, would have been a crime against hope itself, a crime against the hope that warriors can transcend war, a crime against the hope that the Way of the Warrior might one day lead to peace.

He did not deny his guilt. Yes, he legalized robbery in the name of belief; yes, he slaughtered innocents in the name of his duty; yes, he turned a blind eye as his troops raped every woman they found; yes, yes, yes, he did all these things. He made no excuses, he did not plead that he was only following orders. He made a conscious decision to commit great evil. He did so because he honestly felt that to not do so was the greater evil. As I sat there and listened to Shimura-sama talk, I felt yet more shame. This time, shame at myself for judging Shimura-sama as I did. Did I not murder Ichiro Yori and his wife, for no other reason than to shield a murderer from justice? Had I not committed crimes in the name of my belief?

The difference between Shimura-sama and myself was only one of magnitude.

We were, are, of one character.

I cannot decide whether that knowledge is humbling, ennobling, or something of which I ought be ashamed.


Shimura-sama told me of the deaths of Nanjing, and also of a minor detail which has been lost in history. Nanjing was a metropolitan city like any other, and had its fair share of criminals. The first thing Shimura-sama and Yori-san did after taking over the city was go through the city jail. Those who were imprisoned for minor crimes were let free (usually just to be killed later); and those who were imprisoned for major crimes were summarily executed.

One of the major criminals executed by Shimura-sama’s hand was a Chinese alchemist named Yellow Jade. He was legendary in the world of Taoist alchemy, both for his power and his depravity. It was said that Yellow Jade’s magic was so great that he could unweave the very fabric of karma itself, and use the Great Wheel of Existence as his millstone to crush his enemies. Destiny itself was his laboratory, his tool, his modus of existence.

He used his powers recklessly and foolishly, with the cunning and craft common to those who are proficient in evil, always for his own selfish and depraved ends. Once, centuries ago, Yellow Jade was a good man and a good sorcerer, but somewhere over the centuries something in him gave out. He stopped believing in whatever cause drove him as a young man, and left without a cause, he found his own benefit to be cause enough.

There were thousands of people Shimura-sama personally slew in Nanjing, and all but one he regretted.

He had no regrets about decapitating Yellow Jade and throwing his corpse into a mass grave.

This was the final irony of Shimura-sama’s life, he told me. Yes, the Great Wheel of Existence guarantees that crimes such as Nanjing will be avenged; it guarantees that the annihilation of so many lives will rise a corpse to exact vengeance. If the Great Wheel was left to its own devices, perhaps a father from Nanjing would come to kill Shimura-sama for his crimes against Nanjing’s children, or a policeman would rise from the grave to avenge the crimes against his city, or …

… but Yellow Jade hijacked the Great Wheel even from beyond the grave.

There was no just vengeance coming for Shimura-sama. There was only Yellow Jade, restored from death, seeking vengeance. Not vengeance for Shimura-sama’s crimes against Nanjing, but revenge against Shimura-sama for killing Yellow Jade, for putting an end to his career of evil, for putting an end to Yellow Jade’s fun.

It was Yellow Jade who was coming to kill Shimura-sama.

It was Yellow Jade whom I would be facing this night.

It all crashed into me at once. The Great Wheel of Existence had come ’round full circle. Just as Shimura-sama had shattered families at Nanjing, so had Yellow Jade manipulated karma to shatter Shimura-sama’s family. Yellow Jade manipulated karma to put Shimura-sama’s wife and children in Nagasaki, beneath The Bomb; Yellow Jade manipulated karma to lead Toshiro to his fall; Yellow Jade manipulated karma to bring about the destruction of everything Shimura-sama held dear.

— So why did Yellow Jade destroy the School?

If the School existed only to shield Shimura-sama from discovery, then why did Yellow Jade go to such great lengths to kill all of Shimura-sama’s students, or to drive them away in despair, having rejected bushido? Wasn’t that a lot of work for —

— and then I realized that I still did not know why I was there.

So I asked my liege, my friend, my father, why the School existed, if not to shield him from the consequences of his crime?

Shimura-sama looked infinitely tired, then. “When I was a child,” he began, “I was raised to believe in duty, in honor, in the code of the warrior. I was told these things would bring peace and dignity to the world, would end all the suffering, would stop this mad plunge into despair. It was a beautiful dream, and one I believed in. And yet, this dream has been a neverending nightmare. I have lost my home and family in atomic fire. I have seen my heritage dragged through the sewer of Tojo’s ambitions. I have seen mountains of innocent dead, sacrificed on the altar of my ideal. I have been loyal to my dream, Akita, even through my dream’s disloyalty to me. But after Nagasaki…” He looked away for a moment, as if the thought was too painful to bear, the memory too dreadful to disinter.

“I looked over the wreckage, the nuclear disaster, and abandoned Buddhism,” he said after five solid minutes of silence. “I felt such despair — still today feel such despair — that I do not want to be reincarnated. If the Great Wheel is true, then this tragedy will repeat itself over and over again. I embraced Catholicism because of the promise that this world will not repeat itself. That we die, and we are judged, and we do not return to this Earth. That was … that was a blessing, there in the shadow of the Bomb. So there I dedicated my life anew, to God and the Risen Christ. I threw myself into philosophy, into religion, trying to find some solace in my newfound faith. I found it in 1948.”

He stood up and I could almost hear his bones creak with age. His Arts and his discipline had kept him perpetually in his early fifties, but now he seemed to be his full century and some. He moved like an old man, but strangely, not a defeated one. He pulled down a tome from the bookshelf — Søren Kierkegaard, a Christian philosopher, The Sickness Unto Death. He thumbed it open to a well-used page and read from it in a strong, clear voice:

“And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not.”

He returned to his seat and gave me the book from which he’d read. “The School,” he said very quietly, very gently, “was my attempt at discovering whether bushido was worthwhile, or whether it was doomed to always lead to the same cataclysm. It was my attempt at discovering whether I lived in despair or not.”

And? I asked him. What is the answer? You’ve seen nine of your students renounce the life and thirty-seven die, cut down in a foolish and pointless war against someone who wasn’t even your real enemy. What, then, is the answer?

“Thirty-seven are dead and nine renounced themselves, yes,” Shimura- sama said, voice sad. “I grieve for them with all my heart. But there is one who yet remains. And you, Akita, give me hope that my dream was not for naught, was not in vain, is not doomed to catastrophe. I have my answer. I will die tonight, Akita, and when you die, so too will my dream. But now I know that it was not in vain.”

Thirty-seven of your grandchildren are dead, Shimura-sama, sacrificed on the altar of your pride, to prove the justness of your cause.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I am not so different now than I was at Nanjing, Akita. Your poet Browning had it right: ‘That’s all we may expect of man, this side the grave: his good is — knowing he is bad.’”


Yellow Jade came for us that night. We heard them enter the foyer, heard boots crunching on the tatami, smelled the gun oil. I stood and reached for my sword, but Shimura-sama stopped me. He took his own sword down from the stand — I had never seen it taken down before — and handed it to me. “Do not stain your own sword defending a common murderer,” he said quietly. “Mine has already been stained enough by my actions. It cannot be stained further.”

So I took his sword. He took mine and placed it upon the stand, for safekeeping.

“Listen to me, Akita. Yellow Jade is the master of the Wheel. You have one and only one advantage over him: you are Christian, and will never be reincarnated. He cannot use the Wheel against you, for you have no previous revolution he can use against you, and no future revolution he can take revenge upon. He is the master of the Great Wheel, but you are the Iron Wheel. Take solace in that.” He spoke all this quickly, as if he was meaning to say something else and battle advice spilled from his lips instead. Finally, he spoke the sentence which had been percolating on his tongue from the beginning.

“I am sorry that I have so stained your family name.”

With less than five minutes left in my life, I became Shimura.

I went forth into the foyer to die.

As I walked, I breathed seven times. I made my peace with God and resolved myself to my death. As I stepped forward to my foe, I realized something:

Life and death — who cares?
The warrior’s life is short.
Yet duty endures.

I faced my foes standing in the light of a second Enlightenment.

Yellow Jade had brought a sea of undead to the School, streaming in from every window, every shoji, every imaginable place. The slavering bakemono lacked intelligence, lacked sentience, lacked self-awareness, but their zanshin was fearsome; a dozen undead creatures fresh from the grave, intent on barrelling past me and into the study beyond.

Who stood in their way?

A murderer. An accomplice after the fact to one of the most heinous war crimes in history. A failed samurai, a failed Catholic, a Shimura in a world which no longer needed the Shimura. A man who indirectly caused his own mother’s death. The bastard progeny of a drug-addicted underage prostitute. A gangbanger from Cabrini Green. A man who called a whore ‘Mother.’

A man who, standing upon the threshold of his destruction, finally understood the meaning and complexity of the word duty.

A dozen bakemono came to kill me.

Standing there in the dawn of a new Enlightenment, it took me only fourteen seconds to Kill them all, to Kill so perfectly their souls were ripped entirely off the Wheel. Fourteen seconds to litter the floor with oozing remains of what had previously been certain death. Fourteen seconds to assert the truth of Creation: it does not matter what we are, only what we become.

I am a murderer, a criminal, a whoreson.

I have become samurai.

Nothing else matters.

My second Enlightenment did not last for long. At the end I was on my knees gasping for breath. I waited for a handful of seconds to gather my wits before heading back into the study to give Akira Shimura, my grandfather, the blessed news: it does not matter what we are, only what we become.

I entered the study and met Yellow Jade.


When I entered the study I was greeted by a sight of unimaginable gore. Shimura-sama — Grandfather — had been decapitated as he sat at his desk. A tall, angular Chinese man with hair down to his waist sat crosslegged atop Grandfather’s desk. My sword had been taken down from the stand and sat blood-drenched across Yellow Jade’s lap. In Yellow Jade’s left hand was Grandfather’s severed head, his cranium shattered and exposed to expose the brain beneath. Yellow Jade was feasting on Grandfather’s brain when I entered, his expression like that of a sushi aficionado given a platter of fugu.

I charged Yellow Jade, of course, tried to take his head from his shoulders. It was futile. He barely stirred as he broke my spine on the edge of the desk, gouged out one of my eyes with a taloned thumb.

“I am Yellow Jade,” he told me offhandedly between bites of Grandfather’s brain, keeping the head pointed in my direction so I had no choice but to see the horror. “I have destroyed Akira Shimura, ended his entire line. There will be no more Shimura, no more samurai.” He laughed as I tried to stand, as I tried to make my paralyzed body move. The laugh was the most inhuman thing I have ever heard. But even then, I found solace —

— Yellow Jade did not realize I was, am, Shimura. Karma has betrayed him; his plan is incomplete!

I lay there, grievously wounded, trying to staunch the bleeding from my eye as Yellow Jade finished his gruesome meal. “Soon,” Yellow Jade said after licking his lips clean of every last morsel, after lapping his tongue around the inside of Grandfather’s skull to collect every last droplet, “the rest of the Fraternity of Swords will come around and ask what happened. Tell them I did it. Show them your wounds. And let them know that I am in possession of the one thing which can kill me.” He picked up my sword, still drenched in Grandfather’s blood. “It is one of the laws of karma, you see. Only the sword which killed me once can kill me again.” He stared at his reflection in the blade, the way his features were tinted red in Grandfather’s coagulating blood, and licked the blade clean with an expression of orgasmic delight.

“Tell them that, O Man Who Would Be samurai. Tell them the last of the Shimura walks in China. Tell them I am waiting.”

He left, and I lay there in agony for a few more minutes until I had bent my Art to the task of restoring my body.

The next day I left Osaka for San Francisco, where I have lived these last three years.


It has been three years now since my grandfather was murdered, three years since Yellow Jade walked off with my sword and left Grandfather’s sword in my hand, since karma betrayed Yellow Jade. What weird quirk of fate could have led Grandfather and I to trade swords that close to the end? A spark of the Divine, perhaps, Christ interceding to ensure that the Wheel would for once be stymied, ensuring Yellow Jade’s magic would fail in such a subtle and catastrophic way?

I believe it was the work of God. I do not believe the intent was to put the weapon capable of killing Yellow Jade in my hand, though.

I believe God held the Wheel in abeyance to teach me that the Wheel is not absolute, that the Wheel is not unavoidable. I believe God held the Wheel still so that I might learn faith, so that I might perhaps one day hold the Wheel still myself.

This is my destiny: to stand in opposition to the Wheel, and perhaps, for just a moment, transcend it.

I am going to China now, to hunt and kill Yellow Jade. I am not doing this for revenge, not doing this to avenge Grandfather, not doing this for the innocents Yellow Jade has abused, not doing this for the machinery of death Yellow Jade set in motion. I am doing it because someone must; because if no one stops him, he will continue to use the Wheel as his private millstone, and I fear for the world should he go on.

I do not need Grandfather’s sword to kill Yellow Jade. Yellow Jade proclaimed the Wheel foretold the manner of his death. If I am to transcend the Wheel, I must start by walking away from its prophecies.

To the Understudy, I bequeath Grandfather’s sword. It has slain too many, but never mind that. It does not matter what it is, only what it becomes. I trust that in your hands, Understudy, it will become rarely-used, a symbol of justice instead of war.

And to you, Claudia, I give my two most valuable possessions —

— Grandfather’s copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death

— and my absolute, unlimited love.

Remember that it does not matter what you are.

It only matters what you become.

You can become anything, dear heart. Anything.

Especially those things you believe you could never hope to be.