Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Jade Palace Vendetta (10 page)

Kaze looked at Enomoto, pivoting slightly.

“Enomoto Katataka,” the swordsman said.

“Matsuyama Kaze.”

Kaze put his hands on the mat and gave a polite bow. Enomoto returned the bow in exactly the same manner and at exactly the same depth. To the other men in the room it was a formal polite greeting, but to the two men involved it seemed like the punctuation to something else. They had already greeted each other when both took measure as Kaze walked into the room.

“You have already met Ando-san, the head of my household. The rest of these men are my retainers. They work for Enomoto-san or Ando-san.”

Kaze gave a polite bow to all in the room.

“First, there is the payment for the good samurai who escorted me from the barrier.” Hishigawa gave a nod and a man slid forward and placed a paper-wrapped stack of coins before the samurai. Much to Kaze’s disgust, the head of the group scooped up the money as any
merchant would and put it in his sleeve. He gave a deep, formal bow of thanks.

“And for you, Matsuyama-san, I promised enough to buy the finest sword in Kamakura.” Hishigawa gave another nod, and the servant slid forward and placed another paper-wrapped stack of coins in front of Kaze. Kaze acted as if they weren’t there, but he did give Hishigawa a thank-you bow.

“Good,” Hishigawa said, “now we have some business to discuss. I want you to become my yojimbo, my bodyguard,” Hishigawa said to Kaze.

“Aren’t you happy with the security I provide you,” Enomoto asked, his face darkening at Hishigawa’s suggestion.

“No. It’s not that,” Hishigawa said quickly. “I simply feel the need for some additional personal protection. There have been attempts on my life lately, and I need someone to protect me.”

Kaze was surprised at Hishigawa’s suggestion and bowed deeply. Hishigawa interpreted this as gratitude and an acknowledgment that Kaze was joining his household. Instead Kaze said, “I appreciate the generous offer to join your household, but I have other duties and tasks I must perform.”

“Duties?” Hishigawa said. “But you are a ronin.”

“Sometimes wandering is a duty, Hishigawa-san.”

Hishigawa looked as if he was going to try to argue with Kaze, but Kaze gave a short bow and stood up.

“Thank you for your hospitality and generosity,” Kaze said. “I would like to stay with you a few days, until I obtain a new sword, but then I must be leaving.” Kaze walked out of the room. He left the money behind.

         
CHAPTER 11
 

Eagles spot other
eagles from a long distance.
Like gathers with like
.

 

A
half hour later, Kaze was in a smaller room talking to Enomoto and sipping warm sakè.

“Hishigawa-san has told me how strong you are as a swordsman,” Enomoto said. “If what Hishigawa-san says is accurate, you attacked the bandits when it was seven to one. Hishigawa-san also said you were able to save his gold as well as get him to the barrier. I’m glad I have a chance to drink with you. It’s rare to come across a man of your quality.”

Kaze gave a curt nod to acknowledge Enomoto’s compliment.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay as a yojimbo?” Enomoto said. “If you don’t want to work for Hishigawa you can work for me. I could always use another man with a sword like yours.”

“I’m sorry. I have things I must do. I am looking for a young girl. She would be nine now. I noticed all your maids are very young, so perhaps you employ her or know something of her. I don’t know what name she would be known as, but she might have come to your house with a kimono bearing a family crest of three plum blossoms. Do you know anything of such a child?”

“Ando-san likes young maids. She buys them from agents who scour the countryside for young farm girls. She likes to break them in
so we can turn a profit by selling them into service elsewhere. Although we’ve had many young girls in this house during the time I’ve been here, there’s nothing I can tell you about one with a plum blossom crest.”

Kaze, who had made similar inquiries all over Japan, was neither surprised nor disappointed by Enomoto’s answer.

“Is it true that the bandits were trying to kill Hishigawa-san?” Enomoto asked.

“It was very peculiar. Most hesitated after they had killed the guards and demanded Hishigawa-san’s surrender, but at least one man, Ishibashi, had only the death of Hishigawa-san as his goal.”

“Ishibashi?” Enomoto said.

“Yes. Hishigawa-san said he was the leader of the bandits.”

Enomoto looked genuinely upset. “Disgusting,” he said. “Hishigawa-san was robbed of gold less than a year ago. At that time they killed the guards with him, but they didn’t hurt him. It’s disturbing that they wanted to kill him this time.”

“Why does Hishigawa-san transport gold from Kyoto anyway?” Kaze asked.

“Because his businesses get out of balance in terms of the amount of gold they have. He has to reallot gold among the three locations of Kamakura, Edo, and Kyoto periodically.”

“I understand that,” Kaze said. “I just don’t know why he actually transfers the gold from each of his businesses.”

“Do you know a way he could avoid that?” Enomoto said, surprised.

“I’m not a merchant,” Kaze replied.

“Of course. Forgive me.” Enomoto knew not to pursue talk of commerce, but he eyed Kaze speculatively. “Oh,” he said. “Speaking of merchants, I apologize for Hishigawa-san’s rudeness with this.” He took the stack of paper-wrapped coins from his sleeve and put it in front of Kaze with a bow. This time it was properly wrapped, in a folded sheet of fine paper, to hide the fact that it was a stack of money. “He wasn’t trying to insult you. He thinks it’s normal to hand money
to samurai. You saw how the barrier guards snatched up their payment.”

Kaze waved his hand, as if dismissing Hishigawa’s breach of etiquette in handing Kaze the payment so crassly. Kaze took the payment from Enomoto and put it in his sleeve.

“With so many samurai wandering the roads it’s difficult to get employment, even for a man of your skills. Are you sure you won’t change your mind and fight for me?”

“No. I can’t work here,” Kaze said.

“Why not?”

Kaze paused for a minute, then said, “As I told you, I have other obligations that I must fulfill. Besides, I think Hishigawa-san may be a bad man. If he’s not a bad man, then he’s certainly a weak one, the way he’s possessed by his wife, Yuchan.”

Enomoto grinned. “What makes you think that I’m not a bad man, too?”

Kaze looked at Enomoto and said, “I’ve already considered that possibility.”

Enomoto laughed. “Very good,” he said, “just remember that I am a bad man. A very bad man. We’re all bad here. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in this household.”

Kaze picked up his sakè cup and took a sip. “That’s something I’ll remember in my future dealings with you,” he said.

Enomoto laughed again.

K
aze decided to explore Kamakura and left Hishigawa’s villa to go into town. When he walked out of the villa, he saw Hanzo and Goro sitting by the manor’s front gate looking miserable.

Kaze walked up to them and said, “What’s the matter?”

Both held out their hands. They each had a few coppers. “We were promised gold,” Hanzo said accusingly, “and this is what Hishigawa-san paid us. He didn’t even give us the full ten coppers he said he would.”

Kaze looked down at the meager copper coins in their hands.
He reached into his sleeve and took out the paper-wrapped coins. He opened the paper, then tore open the tissue that was wrapped around the coins. He took four of the oblong gold coins and dropped two each into the upturned palms of the surprised peasants.

“I’m the one who promised you gold,” Kaze said.

He started down the path into the town of Kamakura. He had only taken a few strides when Goro and Hanzo came rushing up to him. They dropped to their knees and placed their foreheads on the grounds, their hands on either side of their heads, “Thank you, Samurai-sama! Thank you, thank you!” they said.

Kaze looked down at the two peasants. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be disgusting. I gave you gold, not something of true value.”

Leaving the puzzled peasants looking after him, Kaze continued his journey into the town.

Kaze went past the main street of Kamakura, which had a raised stone causeway running down its middle. When Kamakura had its bakufu government, a Shogun had built the causeway as a way of begging the Gods to ease the childbirth of his wife.

On each side of the main street were numerous shops filled with food, merchandise, and clothes. Kaze picked a shop that sold
katsuo-bushi
, dried bonito. The slabs of dried bonito looked like blocks of wood. A small plane was used to shave pieces off for flavoring in soups and other dishes. The dried bonito looked so much like wood that sometimes scoundrels would sell blocks of wood to unsuspecting housewives at what appeared to be a bargain price for bonito. Often the housewives were so embarrassed that they didn’t report the fraud to the village authorities, allowing the scoundrels to move on to the next village.

The words “katsuo-bushi” could also be interpreted as “victorious samurai,” so dried bonito was a popular and auspicious gift. Kaze decided to start with this shop because he thought that “victorious samurai” might bring him luck.

“Sumimasen, excuse me,” he said.

The shopkeeper looked at Kaze and bowed. He was a mere gnome of a man, wearing a gray kimono. “Yes, Samurai-sama?” he said, using the “sama” honorific to show how exalted Kaze, or any customer, was.

“Do you know if anyone in the neighborhood has a nine-year-old girl as a servant? She might have come here when she was seven.”

If the shopkeeper thought this was a strange question, he was too polite to show it. “No, Samurai-sama, there is no girl like that in this neighborhood. We are poor shopkeepers, so most do not have servants of any age.”

Kaze had been searching for over two years, and the only real clue he had to the girl’s whereabouts was the piece of cloth he had received from the trio he was also seeking, so he wasn’t surprised by the shop-keeper’s response.

“I am also seeking a trio,” Kaze continued. “One is an elderly woman who is still sturdy and fit. She may be wearing a headband with the kanji for ‘revenge’ on it. She’s accompanied by a young man, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, and an old servant who is unusually thin.”

“I can help you with those people, Samurai-sama. They were in my shop just two days ago. If you’ll excuse me for saying it, Samurai-sama, but the woman was rather… well, forceful is how I would describe her. But I mean no disrespect, especially if she is related to you, Samurai-sama!” the shopkeeper added quickly.

“I take no offense,” Kaze assured him. “Did the trio say where they were staying in Kamakura?”

“No, Samurai-sama. The woman talked about what poor quality my bonito is and, ah, insisted on a discount, but they made no mention of where they were staying. I should imagine it is not at an inn, if she was cooking, but perhaps they wanted the bonito as a gift.”

Kaze thanked the shopkeeper and went a few shops down the street, repeating his inquiry. The fact that the trio might be in Kamakura was a great help to Kaze, although he had no way of knowing if they were staying in Kamakura or if they had gone on to Enoshima Island to the south or Edo to the north. After asking at several shops,
he learned that the woman had also purchased miso and some rice, all at a discount after criticizing the quality. Kaze was confident that they were staying somewhere in the Kamakura area. One wouldn’t buy supplies like that if they were still on the road.

Kaze asked at temples and inns about the trio, with no luck. He continued methodically searching Kamakura until it was dark and the cheery glow of colored paper lanterns hung in front of drinking places and inns illuminated the street.

He was aware that people were following him long before the sun set, but he ignored them. There were three men. They were quite good, periodically changing the one who followed Kaze and sometimes walking on parallel streets so they weren’t directly behind him. They were careful to keep hidden, so Kaze couldn’t see their faces to discover if the three men were familiar. Kaze didn’t lack for interest in who the men were and why he was being followed, but he assumed the reasons would eventually be revealed.

At the end of his search of inns, Kaze headed down an alleyway that ran between two secondary streets. The darkness of the alley was relieved only by the faint light of the stars, and Kaze wasn’t too surprised that the three men took this opportunity to approach him. What did surprise him was that the men made no attempt to talk to him. Instead, he heard the hurried shuffle of sandaled feet behind him as the three men rushed him.

Kaze drew the dead man’s sword, dropped his body slightly, and made a sweeping cut with the katana as he spun around. The deadly arc of steel had a dull shine to it as it caught the faint light of the heavens. The blade cut into the midsection of one the three men and caught a second in the forearm. Kaze continued his turn and straightened, ending up to the side of the three men as the one caught in the belly collapsed to the earth with a loud groan.

The other wounded man and his unhurt companion stood for an instant looking at Kaze, who was standing at the ready with his sword in the “aimed at the knee” position. The faces of the men were obscured by cloths, so Kaze couldn’t see their features. It was obvious
that they had intended to kill him. They weren’t Tokugawa officials, so Kaze had no idea why these men would want him dead.

The man wounded in the forearm was holding his sword with only one hand. His other was clamped across the cut on his arm, stanching the flow of blood. Suddenly, he grunted to his companion the single word “Go!” Kaze thought the word was a signal for a coordinated attack, but instead the two men started running down the alleyway, leaving Kaze with their dying companion.

Instead of pursuing the two fleeing assassins, Kaze turned the dying man over. The man’s breathing was labored because the blade had cut into his diaphragm, and he held his hands across the cut, as if his actions could stop his life from leaking out of the terrible slice.

Kaze removed the face cloth. It was someone unknown to him. The masks were intended to hide the men’s faces from townspeople as they murdered Kaze.

“Why did you attack me?” Kaze asked.

The man groaned.

“Tell me why you attacked me,” Kaze said.

The man looked up at Kaze. In the dim light of the alleyway it was impossible to see his eyes, but Kaze saw the man sag and cease breathing, and he knew the eyes would be lifeless and already starting to film.

Kaze sighed. He thought briefly of taking up the pursuit of the other two but decided it was hopeless. He wasn’t frightened by the attempt on his life, but he was curious. If the men wanted him dead because of who he was before he became a ronin, they could kill him with the help of the law. He was fair game for a wide variety of enemies, including the entire Okubo clan.

If they had tried to kill him because of the gold he carried in his sleeve, that narrowed down the potential suspects to Hishigawa’s household. No, Kaze thought, that wasn’t all. The suspects included Hishigawa’s household and the two peasants, Goro and Hanzo. Kaze had saved Goro’s life, but Goro was also the one Kaze had caught contemplating a theft of the gold. Kaze didn’t expect gratitude when men
were blinded by the glint of gold. He had no feelings of anger at the thought that the two peasants might have arranged his assassination to get the rest of the gold he carried. It was a hard time, and men did hard things.

He wiped the dead man’s blade on the kimono of the corpse, then held it before him with both hands and his head bowed.

“Thank you for the use of your blade, Ishibashi-san,” Kaze said to the spirit of the man who had owned the sword. “I’m sorry to have used your katana to kill someone, but in this situation it can’t be helped.” Kaze looked up and carefully slid the blade back into the scabbard. The sooner he got his own blade and stopped the use of the dead man’s sword, the better. Next time the spirit of Ishibashi might not be so generous in letting the man who killed him use his sword so successfully.

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