“You understand,” said Chokki, apparently noting Kagami’s hesitation, “that these trinkets are but expressions of our respect?”
Kagami met Chokki’s eyes. Respect? Respect for a sansei? Kagami noticed, in Chokki’s expression, the fine and uncooked seeds of condescension, as if he were laughing inwardly at the ignorant sansei, at this respect built of wire-mesh, an ornament, paying him off with a fistful of paper money and baubles. Quite suddenly, Kagami understood why.
“I am most flattered,” said Kagami, fighting to conceal his anger, “but I cannot accept.”‘
Chokki blinked like a Hiroshiman in the brightness.
“If I am of Shihan ability,” said Kagami, “I may no longer engage in play. Is this correct?”
“Why… of course! Opponents must be of near-equal ability, of matched strength. No one may play a Shihan. Advantage does not come in domination of the novjce, but in superior thinking with one’s equals.”
“Or one’s betters?” Kagami handed the items back to Chokki, who accepted them unbelievingly. “I am afraid your offer is much too gracious. I shall continue as a player.”
A cheap ruse! A child’s trick! Did this Line Nippon truly believe that Kagami would be so easily fooled? The transparency of the ploy was grave insult piggybacked upon intended injury. Kagami dug his fingernails into his palms and contained himself.
Chokki began to speak, stopped, began again. “As you wish, though I do not know what we shall tell the Council. No precedent.”
“Extend my deepest apologies,” said Kagami. “May I catch you later, Chokki san.”
Chokki bowed courteously and left the house. Kagami stood by the open T6-screen and watched Chokki walk briskly down the manicured path, past spacious rock gardens and neatly calendared emperor tulips and Agean windflowers, to his dart. Chokki clambered in to the small vehicle and escalated quietly into the overcast afternoon sky.
“Goodbye,” called Kagami, waving with his right hand. His left hand closed and opened behind his back. Then he adde.d in a whisper, “You little Nip.”
The words tasted extraordinary.
Samuel Kagami remained on his horse, an impossibly black stallion, and leaned in the saddle to touch the stagecoach driver.
The driver’s throat was opened in a ragged five centimeter circle. Blood drained slowly, coagulating about his neck and chest, thin strands of fibrin spiderwebbed from his chin. His rifle lay unused in his lap.
“Gawddamn!” said one of Kagami’s men—the one he called Moyers, an obese fellow who wore a rancid yellow bandana about his head. Moyers poked an inquisitive finger into the stagecoach driver’s neck. “Got him real good, Sammy.”
“Open the coach,” said Kagami.
A strong wind blew through the pass; sun carved rock and sand about Kagami as it hung like a washed-out lightbulb in the pale morning sky. Samuel Kagami felt strong also; virile, alive. A thin kid in a vest and rolled sleeves dismounted and flung open the door of the coach.
Kagami gestured at the passengers. “Out.”
An older fellow, dressed in frock coat and traveling hat, emerged from the coach. He turned and took the hand of a young woman, a girl actually, not more than sixteen, helping her step down. Kagami eyed the girl; her tight bodice accentuated pleasing curves, smooth lines, and Kagami found himself wondering what would please him most.
“Empty your pockets,” ordered Kagami.
“Please,” said the well-dressed man, his voice trembling with apparent anxiety. “I am escorting my niece to Sioux Falls, for a recital. I am a music teacher. I have nothing you want.”
Kagami said nothing, knowing that his reputation here, in whatever time or place this was, read like a headstone. He could tell, simply by the feel of the Kagami he now was.
The man waited a moment, then fished a leather billfold from his frock coat.
Kagami caught the wallet and opened it, methodically rifling its contents and tossing them one by one to the ground. The wind caught the paper money which Kagami discarded, and whirlpooled it about the feet of his horse.
“Hey!” cried Moyers, as he raced about gathering the money in his hands. Kagami kept pulling items from the billfold.
“If you’ll only tell me what you’re looking for, perhaps—”
“Shut up!” barked Kagami. Yes, the feel of this one was superb! This Kagami did not take orders, did not heed warnings. This Kagami strode where he pleased, said what he wished, took as he saw fit. He spat tobacco juice in the music professor’s face.
The professor wiped at it with a coat sleeve and clamped his jaws together. Kagami continued sorting through the wallet.
This was what he had come for. He withdrew two theatre tickets and waved them at the professor. “Aha! Ya, boys! Here we go. Ya!”
“But those are simply—”
“I know what they are!” shouted Kagami. He walked his horse closer to the music teacher and drew back his leg, driving his spurs into the man’s ribcage. The professor reeled backward and tumbled to the sand. Kagami thought of dismounting and having the girl, there, on the ground, with Moyers and the thin kid laughing and the professor shaking violently. He felt no need in his groin, but reminded himself that if he wished to, he could, and the thought of the professor looking on in silent agony pleased him more than he knew the girl would have anyway.
He studied the tickets.
C-16 and C-17. Seat numbers. Excellent seat numbers.
The girl knelt by her uncle and wiped his forehead with the hem of her skirt; Kagami was momentarily intrigued by the pale skin exposed on her calf, the compact breasts bound so tightly within the lace blouse, but… no time. No need and no time. He had what he’d come for.
“Do you need to further humiliate us, or may we proceed on our way? It seems, quite inexplicably, that you have what you wanted.” The professor’s breathing was impaired, his voice undercut by the sound of wind cutting cellophane. Perhaps a rib had been broken.
Kagami spat in the man’s face a second time. This time, however, the professor did not wipe away the brownish sputum, but stared into Kagami’s eyes through the mucusoid film.
“Get on with you,” said Kagami.
The girl helped her uncle to his feet and they both walked, he with a slight limp, to the front of the coach. The mutilated driver was slumped in the seat; the girl, having not yet seen him, raised her hands to her lips and stifled a scream.
“Oh, dear Jesus!” she said. “Is he dead, Uncle Choggy?”
The professor turned and looked at Kagami again. He blinked spittle from his eyes and smiled.
“I’m afraid so, Kate,” he said. “This time.”
“Is there nothing we can offer you then?” said Chokki. The Neobiotix field representative played with the hem of his shoulder coat, avoiding Kagami’s eyes.
“No. I shall continue as a player.”
Chokki shook his head, sadly. Kagami offered no brandy, but poured himself a large cup—another large cup—and laughed quietly, thinking that certainly a VSOP cognac from the Israeli National States was far too rare for a Line Nippon.
“You are driving us from business, Kagami san. Do you even realize this?”
“I play for victory. I mean no ill to your company’s prosperity.”
“Yet we find it difficult to sell neobiotic housing any longer. Your reputation has grown too large, customers will not invest knowing that should you challenge, they must accept, and that you shall ultimately conquer their territories. I myself will be dismissed from my employ unless I bring a satisfactory reply, thus, I have nothing to lose and may speak frankly. Neobiotix shall be pleased to furnish you with a check for any amount you estimate you may win.”
Kagami drained his glass.
He had waited impatiently all day yesterday, all morning today, for the referee to declare his turn. There was but one crucial move to be made, and though Kagami did not know yet what it was, he did know how to find out. Chokki was nothing more than an annoying insect buzzing about his ears.
“You,” said Kagami, “do not have what I may win.”
“You have crafted an empire, vaster by far than any in the history of the game. Thus, it cannot be material reward you seek. What then?” Chokki seemed to be shivering; the muscles in his face tightened, no longer the pleasant oval shape it had been. Kagami had never seen the stoic Line Nippon in such an agitated state, and it greatly pleased him. “Do you believe that further victory and ruthless triumph will make you a… a…”
“Line Nippon?” said Kagami, quickly. “Like you, fat little Chokki?”
Chokki’s eyes grew wide with astonishment, his mouth hung open like a sprung trap door. “I… I did not mean to say—”
“Damn what you say! You never say what you mean anyway!” Kagami rose from the lioo-chair and stood above the smaller man, at a distance he knew Chokki would find uncomfortably close. The liquor caused him to sway slightly, like a pear tree in the breeze. “How does it feel then, Chokki? Mr. Chokki? How does it make you feel? Kokomu? Surrounded? Yes? Now it is your turn, my little friend. You are the single stone and I the invader.”