"This is my son, Shoutarou. He is next in line, my first son." Ryo said.

Among the seven gentries that were present was a young and gentle face, which turned towards Kai's direction. It was a discrepancy within the meeting of adult men. The farmer boy unconsciously widened his eyes as he saw a near spitting image of Lord Ryou. Shoutarou had the same neck length black hair as the lord did, with the fringes coursing around his oval face, and he wore a black hemp robewith a white ring pattern trimming the sleeve cuffs.

Kai quickly acknowledged Shoutarou with a smile and pulled back his susegasa, which was tied under his chin by a string. It hung behind his neck, revealing prickly black hair and a thick brown headband wrapped around his brow.

"Heh heh, so you be th' one?" Kai asked with a light laugh.

There wasn't an answer; instead, the Mibuno boy was met by prolonged, incredulous staring from Shoutarou. The Tsukimori heir was speechless; despite how awkward and impolite it was to not return a greeting, Shou couldn't help but be perplexed, and curious. Kai was a perky looking field youth with insufficient clothes, wild hair, and a deepened voice. Yet, Shou's father sounded like he was highly expecting the stranger.

"Nice to meet you, Kai." After a moment of contemplating, Shoutarou finally replied back with his soft-spoken voice. Kai's smile widened; not only was he finally acknowledged, but the sound of the little lord's voice was, in Kai's mind, cute as a shy princess. Elegant and simply cute; strangely, Shoutarou was going to be sixteen on the ninth month (October). Kai easily gave off the image that he was far stronger than even the heir.

"Next is Keigo Tateoka (楯岡 慧五)," Ryo continued on with the acquaintances, gesturing his hand towards the trio to his right, "And over here is Kosuke Shindoh" (新堂 光助), Genzou Nomura (野村 現三), and Daishiro Fukuchi (福地 大城). They are fellow supporters of mine and Lord Fujibayashi."

Kai took a glimpse at each person; only their surnames were recognizable, but he knew that he was surrounded by significant rural soldiers from northwestern Iga. After introducing everyone, Ryo closed his eyes.

"Kai, the Ashikaga rule has crippled considerably. Still, war between the daimyo dominates everywhere. There is no stability, which leaves everything prone to subjugation and feuding. Thanks to the feats of the Hattori family, we are being employed by the armies for our skills." The house lord explained.

Young Kai listened attentively without breaking his stare on the lead Tsukimori. Hattori – that name was widely popular among the people of Iga. It was the name of a clan that gained popularity for serving first the Ashikaga, then the Matsudaira and Tokugawa families.

Ryo continued, "Iga's political stance is with the Hattori, which is with the Tokugawa family and its allies. I am lenient when it comes to conscription, Kai. It is identical to subjugation; I enjoy peace, and I rather not get the peasants involved in fighting. But, I can't hinder the fighting spirits of men. No, rather, I can't hinder the will of men that wants to protect."

Then, Ryo opened his eyes and gave out a warm smile, "Youth, I am a firm believer in youth. They can attune to principles easily. You, Kai, seem to have a strong aim, and for the longest time farmers have mounted battles against unfairness. My son Shoutarou has a good heart; I also feel that there is a sense of caution and a care for his friends, but he seems to push himself away from accepting consequences and taking charge in actions. We can't have a lord who is not punctual and can't take action." He said, looking at his son.

Shoutarou lowered his head from being openly reproved. Ryo's mouth bent into a frown and then he added, "Who knows? I might not even be here tomorrow."

Fourteen-year-old Shou promptly raised his head and faced his father, looking jarred, "Father! You don't need to speak such words." He said.

"I only speak reality. You need to be ready. I think if I were to die, you'd only feel weaker. You'd be unable to bear my passing and honor my memory by pushing forward." Ryo replied in a calm tone, looking at his son with an earnest expression. Ryou, or Ryoutarou Tsukimori (竜太郎) formally, truly sounded like a blessed man, and Kai couldn't keep his eyes off of him. He wouldn't blink, and being young, he was easily allured by the lord's words. It felt like he was touched in his heart by a true father figure.

"I want to know why. Why you decided to join me? In your proximity there is Sawamura and Takeshima, Instead, you roamed all the way up here. Was this your father's intention?" Ryo asked.

"No m'lord. I came 'ere m' own way, see? M' own choice. You were more attractin' to me, and you worked wit' father an' were watchin' my trainin'." Kai said.

Ryo nodded his head, "That is true. I do know your father. He has a strong spirit. How is he, Kai?" He asked.

"He doin' good. One less arm ain't trouble."

"That is great."

"Please forgive how I be talkin'."

"You're already forgiven." Ryo smiled.

"Ah, I thank ya kindly. Cause the lords been recruitin', I wanted t'join. I wanna be that missin' arm."

"What?" Ryo said in a confused voice. He and the six others raised their eyebrows.

"Father's missing arm. Make up for that, for Tokugawa, for all of ya." Kai explained while nodding his head. Then, he directed his eyes to Shoutarou and added, "and I wanna make up for young Lord Shoutarou's struggles"

Hajime interrupted in a severe voice, "What are you saying? Why? Is this pity!"

Kai received another sharp glare from the lord's younger brother and flinched, which made the peasant boy lower his head to break from eye contact. He touched the underlying tatami with his forehead, stretched out his arms, and bowed in submission before everyone, afraid that he might have been tactless. Therefore, his next words came out quickened.

"If I don't, I'll see I pay wit' m' life!" He declared boldly. The interior was quiet, as if everyone was taken aback by Kai's words. With his head low, the farmer boy wouldn't be able to see everyone's surprised stares locked on him. He may have been very nervous, but that didn't deter him from expressing how serious he was about his choice.

"To be only acknowledged, you sound like a warrior." Ryo said dryly.

Later, Kai was dismissed from the shiden. He didn't leave the estate and headed home, but stayed in the courtyard.

Kai was told that he would be accepted after passing a trial, but now Lord Ryo's words weighed heavily on his mind for him to contemplate.

"You prioritize the needs of others above yourself. That is all, but that is all you seek? When you begged, it seemed like you were scared. Your goal is too much out of self-interest, don't you think?" Ryo had said to the young farmer.

In current times, the term "warrior" described the samurai; in essence, a samurai was a man who bonded with another to order to protect and serve him without flaw. It was a kind of privilege left out by the majority of the farmer class. All their minds were fixed on working and supporting stomachs. There were times when they were used to increase efficiency in battle, mainly as secret agents, scouts, or foot soldiers, but they didn't live to oblige to a long line of ancestors. However, Kai seemed different. For a long time, the measure of Kai's selflessness, his lack of negligence would be tested.

"You may die tomorrow, you'll never know. Don't clutch on to such an aim. As a devout follower, you will live to be appreciated." Ryo had said.

Standing in front of Kai in the courtyard was Hajime. Kai felt apprehensive as Lord Ryo's brother stared at him with serious eyes. It was no different than when they were in the shiden. Furthermore, Hajime had his hand around the handle of his sword. The current situation felt unsafe, and Kai was unarmed. Shoutarou was standing right next to him.

"So you're willing to give up your life for Shoutarou you say. Many excellent followers should encourage and guide him, but Shoutarou seems to be a sophisticated boy. There should be nothing profound about his cowardice." Hajime said in a calm tone, slowly raising his sword from out of his obi sheath. Kai was motionless as he watched; the sword was around two shaku with a low curvature.

Hajime added, "I have to ask why or how I should believe your words."

"Ehh," Kai rolled up his eyes as he began to think. He was anxious and felt forced to explain himself, like he was being asked on how he was going to be a useful retainer. It also felt like that Lord Ryo's brother found the farmer boy untrustworthy, and his stubbornness had to be broken through for approval.

"Don' know the winnin' words. I don' be very smart." Kai said after a sigh, "I be jus'ta hardworker. But, I be told to have a brother-like loyalty."

"You show a reverence towards our family and you happen to want to serve a youth that is your junior. Loyalty is indeed a good thing, but do you have what it takes? If Shoutarou said he wanted to die, what would you do? If he died, what would you do?" Hajime asked.

Kai grimaced. He was young and easily flustered by the array of questions that were being thrown at him. He grabbed his head and groaned; and one of Shoutarou's future followers wouldn't consider how foolish he looked. He showed that he was breaking under pressure.

"What are you about to do, uncle?" Shou asked nervously. Hajime didn't answer and his voice was still directed to the farmer.

"Maybe you're too unreliable for Shoutarou. With you two, I imagine a combination of softness and fickleness." Hajime said, pointing his sword at Kai.

"What we gon' do 'ere?" Kai asked, letting go of his head.

Hajime merely said, "This isn't a mock battle."


Hajime's heel lifted and next thing Kai knew, the two shaku sword was rushing towards him.