“Hachidan,” Daichi barked. “Get up. Go again.”
Ronin shook his head, sweat flying everywhere as he rolled to his knees. “I’m done in.”
“You are done in when I say you’re done in.”
Grabbing a towel, he mopped his face. “Let me rest and regroup.”
“That was not a request.”
He heard the sharp crack at the same time he felt the sting of Master Daichi’s belt connect with his quadriceps. He’d learned not to flinch over the years, but it’d been a long time since Sensei had employed his belt as a disciplinary measure.
When Ronin didn’t react, he knew another lash was coming. But he was prepared. He focused on hearing that whisper of fabric on fabric. He’d have less than a split second to counter the strike.
At the barely perceptible shush of Daichi’s sleeve brushing his pant leg, Ronin’s arm shot out. He wrapped the towel in his hand around the belt, stopping the strike from landing.
Ronin glanced up to meet Master Daichi’s surprised gaze. “Yes, Sensei, I pay attention. Even when you work me to exhaustion, mentally and physically, I’m learning from you.”
“And that is why you are his most respected student,” Yasuji said from behind them.
Master Daichi harrumphed. But he didn’t release his belt, nor did Ronin release the towel.
“Enough,” Yasuji said. He untwisted the towel from around the belt, holding both in one hand. “Brother. Take a break. Allow Master Black to do the same.”
Surprisingly, Daichi obeyed. He retreated in silence.
Yasuji pointed to a bottle of water on the low table. “For you.”
Ronin cracked the cap and drained the bottle in four swallows. “Thanks.”
After Ronin caught his balance and his breath, Yasuji said, “May I ask you a question?”
“What are you still doing here? When your lovely bride awaits you in Tokyo?”
“Finishing my required training. The final week is not to be filled with distractions, which is why my lovely bride isn’t here.”
“And what new things have you learned?”
Yasuji rarely questioned him like this and it caused Ronin to scroll back through the past five days’ training exercises. He hadn’t learned anything new; he’d just fine-tuned previous lessons. “I’m not sure I follow what you’re after, Master Yasuji.”
“My brother demanded you train with no distractions, which would lead me to believe he had new things to teach you. But you’ve not learned any deeper ties to meditation. You’ve not learned new offensive or defensive techniques. No new weapons have been introduced. So tell me again; why are you here?”
“Because Sensei demanded it,” he said by rote.
In that moment, the wooden recitation of that statement and the wrongness of his blind obedience collided. He finally understood why his teacher had issued the demand; only to see if Ronin would obey it.
His gaze zoomed to Yasuji. “You knew this additional training wasn’t necessary but just another one of his mindfucks?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t catch on before now.”
“So all of this—the endless drills and never-ending physical challenges were for Daichi’s amusement?”
“No. He is your sensei; he expects obedience from you above all else. But he’s also a man, Ronin. An old man.” He sighed. “As taxing as the challenges have been on you in the past year, the year has been just as bad on him.”
I doubt it.
“Even after your recovery from injury you will continue to be in your prime for the next twenty-plus years. There’s no longer anything more you can learn from him. He knows this. Part of him has feared reaching this point.”
A hard knot formed in his belly. “Since when has he known this?”
“Since you arrived. You had to suspect this was your last training session with him.” Yasuji’s eyes searched Ronin’s. “My brother will always be revered as the man who taught traditional Japanese jujitsu in its purest form. But the time has come for him to rest on his laurels and for you to move on.”
Stunned, Ronin didn’t know what to say.
“You, Ronin-san, are his proudest accomplishment. You’ve surpassed all the goals and expectations he had for you. He saw so much of himself in you. A loner who defied family expectations. A man who rose above mediocrity by sheer will and hard work. A pupil intent on mastering two different disciplines and succeeding. A true Master who defines himself as a teacher above all else.” Yasuji paused. “While you will continue to be a great teacher and a leader for years to come, that one-dimensional description doesn’t fit you anymore. You are also a husband.”
“So because I married Amery he feels I’m somehow . . . lesser?” Ronin said through clenched teeth.
“No man can understand the power of finding the woman who completes him unless he experiences it himself. I have. You have. Daichi has not. His first love is martial arts. He never needed a woman because he felt complete with his first and only love. And because he’s trained you from a young age, he saw a kindred spirit within you.”
Ronin slumped against the outer wall of the spider climb. “The last thing I’ll ever regret is having a life with Amery. And not to be harsh, but I don’t care if he’s disappointed in me for that.”