Saya's apartment was on the top floor of Apartment House, simply named for the long row of seven narrow, three-story structures constructed of shaped, blackish concrete and connected by sky bridges. It was the fourth building, called Apartments Yonban.
Saya's two-room domicile was just big enough for her. The main room, with its attached kitchen and centrally located table, was about 100 square meters. The bedroom beyond the sliding, unvarnished wooden door, was half that size. The walls were a warm, unoffensive honey color, with window trim of chocolate.
The colors were not a coincidence. Saya's sweet tooth was inexcusable under any circumstance outside of her apartment, considering her station, so the apartment became a sugary haven for the Nekovalkyrja. Guests frequently were treated to candies no other Samurai bothered with (except former Penny Eaters, out of habit, and only to turn the iron in chocolate into a pellet).
A dish of the candies sat at the center of the table, the three Neko sitting on the off-white tatami mats around the short, wooden square draped with a blue cloth. The candies were butterscotch, the kind that melted in one's mouth the more they sucked. Kei only needed one look from Kôsuka to keep her hands in her lap, but Saya insisted, and the sensei relented. Kei popped one in her mouth and followed Saya's lead, suckling on it.
Her eyes lit up. She put the candy in her cheek before talking. "These are ... so good!" she said.
Saya's eyes twinkled. "Aren't they? If ever you desire one, sneak by my apartment. I am sure even a Stealth Sentinel can be fooled now and then, wouldn't you say, jou-san?"
Kôsuka bit the inside of her cheek. "No one is perfect, Sensei," she said through grit teeth.
Saya silently agreed before proceeding to bring up a high-quality volumetric panel. The panel showed the Proving House, where trainees and journeywomen tested, while Samurai practiced. It was an enormous box of a building, its walls, ceiling and floor smooth, polished oak. There were two entrances on either end of the long rectangle — one positioned low for those using the room, one near the ceiling that spectators floated up to reach. The seating inside was like a sports stadium, but stopped after five rows. They ran both long sides of the room, each some 250 meters.
Volumetric panels would divide the room depending on the needs. What Kôsuka, Kei and Saya saw from above was a 50-by-50-meter room, with Kei on one side. The view was from a distance, but Kei had her head down.
"I do enjoy this part," Saya said, the lights in her apartment dimming to nothing, and the folding shutters on the windows closing up.
The volumetric panel became three, one for each viewer. They adopted Kei's perspective inside the room, which involved staring at the floor. Saya's voice greeted them.
* * *
"Each year, Samurai seek to hone their prowess by adopting new budô.
Some are trainees beginning their service. Some are veteran Samurai taking new assignments, or feel unsatisfied with their skill set."
"But the ones who bring surprises to budô
are journeywomen, who seek to define themselves and let themselves be defined. They are unpredictable, but trained. They see what trainees cannot, and what Samurai will not. But first, these journeywomen must pass the tests."
The view switched to the other end of the room. Kei was dead still before them, 50 meters away."JOURNEYWOMAN, KEI!"
Kei's head shifted up, looking at the viewer. The perspective zoomed on half of her face and stayed there. "HAI!""You stand before Sora-Mai as a challenger!
No less than a Ketsurui princess has stood here, seeking the way to the sky!
"You have been instructed by Tiger Mother, who in her traditional ways, wields a katana and wakizashi.
Steel Tempest, the most untrained pupil to ever have earned her daisho, used the same. Others choose two katana; others, two wakizashi.
Kei's facial muscles were taunt, as if she would have to headbutt someone during the test. Kôsuka lowered her head a bit, looking up.
"To find the way, you need not follow their path. But it is treacherous to not do so. You accept the risks with your chosen weapons?""HAI! SENSEI-DONO!"
Kôsuka despised the theatrics that came with the pretest ceremony for Sora-Mai.
They were Saya's fault, as the Samurai had a defined sense for the dramatic. Where Kôsuka and Kotori found them pointless, she could not ignore how useful they were for a hesitant student such as Kei. She took control of her panel and scanned the crowd — about 15 Neko, all but two of them trainees who either were considering Sora-Mai
or had committed to it. The other two were Samurai, teachers of "rival" schools of combat.
Then there was the invisible one, at the back corner, near the volumetric "door." Yuri was leaning against the wall, watching.
Kôsuka returned her perspective to the testing ground, taking a wide view to ensure she could see everything. Saya was about done.
"If you are ready, then we shall begin. You face two categories of opponents. The first tests your control. The second tests your resolve. You must pass both to find the way."
This time, Kei only nodded. Kôsuka, who also had administered the tests, remembered she comfortably had passed both tests with her katana/wakizashi combination.
When she narrowed her perspective on Kei, she did not see that pairing. As Kei revealed her weapons and took her fighting stance, Kôsuka tried to maintain her composure, as the actual Kei was watching her for her reaction. Kôsuka now understood why the journeywoman worried about her teacher's reaction.
In what would have been her katana hand, Kei held a suburito.
Instead of wood, however, it appeared to be a heavy metal, probably heavy iron, and was wrapped with thick leather around the hilt. In her off hand, a jutte.
... Or ... she zoomed on the weapon.
" Kôsuka said incredulously. The curved truncheon
was unfamiliar in the hands of a Samurai. It was unpainted, unusual for that type of weapon, and was wrapped at the hilt with cotton rope.
"Inspired, isn't it?" Saya said, leaning forward over the table.
"She has no piercing capacity," Kôsuka said, acutely aware of Kei's looking down at her lap. "How ... ?"
"Watch," Saya replied, eyes stuck on her panel.
Six volumetric opponents appeared. They were black-haired Neko, armed with various weapons — including one with a Type 27 NSP. Around each of their arms, thighs, chest and back, a single row of thick glass vials filled with white paint stood out against the black gi
they wore. Kei's test was to dispatch the opponents without allowing her weapons to break the vials.
The test's purpose was to learn enough control to use the enemy's attacks against them. If an opponent's deflected or redirected attacks broke vials, no penalty was administered. Kôsuka always taught her students to focus less on deflection and more on redirection.
Kei's weapons were ideal for redirection, Kôsuka thought. However, in practice, she was at best a mediocre fighter with swords. She had shown some talent with a staff, but Samurai could not carry a staff wherever they went, and the inherent weakness of a collapsing staff could be fatal for the Samurai or her charge.
A Neko raised her katana. Kei stood firm, posture and stance relaxed but ready, breathing even. Her hachiwara
was resting on her left shoulder, while her suburito
was angled outward, ready for an attack.
The katana-wielding Neko charged. She left the ground to do it, speed rapidly rising as the sword was raised first for a slash, then a thrust, as if she were trying to ram through Kei. It was a stupid attack, which explained why the Neko sprung upward instead, out of attack range. It let another Neko's whirling, roped kama
closing on Kei's head.
When Kôsuka had faced a similar attack, she had ducked it and rolled out of the way of the Neko coming at her from above. It committed the katana Neko to her attack just long enough to slash open her exposed side before repositioning herself.
Kei batted the kama
away with a swirling strike as her feet left the ground. As the katana came down where she had been, Kei was completing a full aerial spin, suburito
coming around —
Kôsuka looked away, but her ears told her what her eyes couldn't. Kei had smashed the katana Neko's head in from the back. Probably at the top of the spinal cord.
Neko brought her weapon back to her as the Neko with the bow let an arrow fly, aimed for Kei's center. Another Neko, this one with a naginata,
closed on foot. Kei dodged the arrow by pushing her body away from it, feet planting on the ground just in time to stop the diagonal slashing strike of the naginata
with her suburito.
It looked like it hurt. Kei had kept the blade from cutting her, but she flipped her weapon in her fist, making the metal bar clang into her arm. The blade barely more than a centimeter from her skin, and surely the journeywoman would bruise later, but she showed no pain.
Kei was exposed to the archer, who was about to draw her bow. The kama
Neko had her arm back to throw her weapon. The naginata
blade was at head-height. Kei's feet barely left the floor as she spun the direction the naginata
had slashed, the arrow slicing by. The naginata
Neko spun, too, bringing her weapon around in an arc to try again to cut Kei down.
was being spun along a vertical axis, probably for a head strike. Kei's body stayed just out of range of the naginata
blade, but she timed her own swinging strike to send that blade into the floor. Before the blade edge was raised from the wood, Kei took one firm step inward and kicked at the exposed shaft. The Neko was reduced to having a broken stick. The kama
came down, but Kei already was ready for it.
Where Kôsuka might have went in closer and slayed the disarmed Neko, Kei had another plan. The sensei watched as her pupil's hachiwara
came up and met the kama
just beneath where the blade met the shaft. Kei's arm gave some to cushion the stop, then brought her suburito
down on the rope. Tensing both arms, she pushed as hard on the rope as she could, getting her hands as far from each other as she could.
The Neko, having wrapped the unneeded rope around her arm, was jerked onto the ground in a graceless faceplant. The Neko with the makeshift staff took advantage of Kei's position and brought her stick down on the Neko's back in a powerful blow.
Kei didn't flinch. She took to the air as she spun away from the kama
and her attackers. She landed, then bounced off the floor before the archer got a bead on her and brought her suburito
down on the back of the kama
Kôsuka winced again.
The archer got her aim and let go. Kei's hachiwara
glanced the arrow away with a precise block, while Kei was crouched. The naginata
Neko collected the bladed part of her weapon from the floor as Kei went upward again, just in time to receive NSP fire.
Blocking the shots wasn't possible, but Kei sped herself up mid-air to keep the shooter's aim off. She came down just a few meters from the NSP user, who jumped high and away, firing. Kei rolled to the side, clumsily slipping from the dodge to avoid another arrow. The naginata
Neko came down on her head with her blade in a wild, over-the-head slash.
Kei thrust her hachiwara
up and caught the blade in its prong while she was on her back. She brought the blade toward the ground while she lifted her back up with anti-gravity. Slipping around the Neko, who fell to the ground, Kei was airborne again, just long enough to avoid the archer.
The NSP user brought her gun to bear, but Kei shunted herself hard into the ground, just behind the naginata
Neko, who had recovered from her fall. The archer could see Kei's profile, but it was too late to save her comrade. With blinding speed, Kei's hachiwara
collided with the naginata
Neko's temple in a devastating strike that sent her crashing to the floor before the archer.
Kôsuka cocked her head at the screen. "That was not unassisted."
"Shhhh! You spoil the finish." Saya was engrossed. Kei was cowering.
The archer did not take her eyes off her target. She loosed another arrow that Kei ducked, then tried to draw another one before Kei seemed to slither over the ground to her feet. The archer tried to twist, but Kei tripped her to the ground with the suburito
before she got her bow on target. Kei was hovering above the ground by just a few centimeters, but it was enough clearance to let her completely spin. It built all the momentum Kei needed to cave the archer's face in with her hachiwara.
There were two opponents left. The NSP user was about to take aim. The second opponent wore tekko.
Kei hurled her suburito
as straight as a javelin. It pegged into the shooter's head and stayed there.
The Neko with the tekko
charged, programmed to sacrifice herself for the cause. She took to the air and landed close to Kei, who backed up. That left enough space for the Neko to land a thudding punch into Kei's rib cage on the right side. Kei didn't slow, deflecting the next one with her forearm, and the next three after that. On the last one, she caught the Neko's wrist and squeezed, interrupting the flow of attack. Kei swiped at her temple with her hachiwara.
She let go before the Neko hit the ground. She breathed.
"1 minute, 38 seconds," Saya the announcer said. "Enough for ninth all-time. Points deducted for one substandard dodging execution, but 80 percent of possible bonus points added based on killing through only two target areas, both on the head."
Kei retrieved her weapon while the KAMI deconstructed the Neko and prepared the next challenge.