Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (17 page)

         
CHAPTER 19
 

Make your hidden plans.
Weave your nefarious web,
you silent spider
.

 

T
he
ninja
carefully studied the floor plan using a tiny candle. Satisfied that he had the villa design committed to memory, he put out the candle to let his eyes adjust to the dark.

The ninja had started his training as a child. As with most Japanese occupations, the teaching of
ninjutsu
, the art of the ninja, was started young. Ninja had existed from the time of Prince Regent Shotoku, so the ninja followed a craft with a lineage of almost one thousand years. Engaging in assassination, espionage, and even pitched battles, the ninja were organized around clans, just as the samurai were. Unlike the samurai, the ninja clans were secret societies. When they were not on an assignment, ninja lived the lives of farmers, also like early samurai. While the samurai evolved into a professional warrior class, however, the ninja remained disguised as farmers, keeping their deadly talents away from the eyes of the authorities and others.

The villages of Iga and Koga were the best known centers of nin-jutsu, but there were several others. It was well known the Tokugawa used the ninja of Koga for their dirty work and spying. This ninja’s clan did not have patrons as powerful as the Tokugawas, but once they accepted a fee, always paid in advance, an agent was committed either to completing the contract or dying in the attempt. The contract
was negotiated by the ninja clan leader, the
jonin
, and conveyed to him by his leader, the
chunin
. He was a simple agent, a
genin
, but a good one.

He was born to the profession, as were his father and his father before him. People almost never studied ninjutsu by choice, for they could not find a member of a ninja clan who would teach them. To reveal the secrets of the clan was an offense punishable by death.

The ninja was hiding in a closet normally used to store linens. The closet was specifically chosen because it abutted an outside wall of the villa. The ninja knew that the last few roof boards in a home, the ones nearest the outer wall, were not fastened down. They were only weighted with stones to keep them in place.

He stepped on a shelf in the closet and reached up, moving the ceiling boards to allow access to the attic. He did a last check to assure that his equipment was secured and wouldn’t make a noise, then, using the closet shelves as a ladder, he crawled up into the attic of the villa.

In a farmhouse, the attic would be stuffed with everything from old tatami mats to food, but Hishigawa’s villa had the luxury of space, so the area above the ceiling was occupied only by dust. Staying on the
taruki
, the cross beams, the ninja traversed most of the length of the villa before he started moving to his left, balancing from beam to beam. The attic space was washed with a faint light that leaked in from holes in the wooden lattice that covered openings in the crest of the roof. The lattice was designed to keep birds and other animals out of the attic, while allowing summer heat and smoke from winter hi-bachi to escape.

When he was in the proper spot, he stopped. He risked striking flint to steel to light his small candle again, and he was able to see the top of the ceiling of the room he was interested in.

The ceiling was supported by thin wooden sticks stretched from wall to wall. On top of these strips were thin slats of wood that formed the actual surface of the ceiling. Each slat lapped its neighbor, small bamboo pegs holding them in place. He used a knife to pry the
pegs out of one slat. He put out his candle, then he lifted the slat to peek into the room below.

The ronin was sleeping on his back, his head resting on a wooden neck rest. The futon was pulled up under his neck, and he seemed to be sleeping comfortably.

The ninja returned the slat to its place. He did everything methodically and slowly. With the victim sleeping soundly, there was no need to hurry.

He crabbed his way across the ceiling until he was in the spot directly over the ronin’s head. Once again he lit the candle and pried out the bamboo pegs holding the ceiling slat in place. Then he snuffed the candle and quietly lifted the slat to look down on the face of his victim.

From a pouch around his neck, the ninja took a coil of silk string, a piece of cloth, and a small bottle. He carefully lowered the string down from the ceiling, holding it with the cloth. The gossamer thread inched downward until it was just a few inches above Kaze’s mouth. Then the ninja stopped.

The stopper on the bottle was specially shaped so it could be removed by gripping it with the teeth, but with a wide guard so none of the bottle’s contents would touch the ninja’s lips. Such an event would be fatal. Using a steady hand, the ninja placed the mouth of the bottle next to the thread and slowly poured the contents onto the thread.

A thin amber liquid clung to the thread and started sliding its way toward the floor. It oozed its way closer and closer to the end of the thread, which was hovering right over Kaze’s mouth. There, the liquid would gather until a drop broke free and landed on Kaze’s lips. This would be followed by a second and third drop until the victim, almost by reflex, would lick his lips. Then he would die.

The amber liquid slid down, and a drop started forming at the end of the thread. Suddenly, Kaze moved his head to the side, mumbling in his sleep. The ninja moved the thread away from Kaze’s head and
stopped pouring. He didn’t want a drop to fall on Kaze’s cheek, waking him but not killing him.

Suddenly, Kaze yawned and started to sit up. The ninja quickly pulled up the thread from the room, running it through the folded cloth to wipe it clean of the poison. Then he waited to see what the ronin would do.

Kaze stretched and scratched himself on the belly, smacking his lips contentedly. Then, taking up his sword from the bedding, he got up and sleepily stumbled to the door. The ninja decided that the ronin was answering a call of nature and placed the ceiling slat partially in place so he could peek into the room when the ronin returned. The ninja could be patient, and he would wait until his victim fell into a deep sleep once more.

As he settled down to wait, the ninja quieted his soul and listened to his own breathing. While he was in the midst of administering the poison, his hand had been steady but his heart was racing. He had been told that this man would be hard to kill. Now that his attempt at assassination had been aborted, he had to bring his heart and body in balance so when he made his next attempt, it would be done with a serene mind.

As he meditated, the ninja became aware of a sound in the attic space. His eyes opened and he stared into the murky darkness, which was relieved only by moonlight coming through the lattice in the crest. He heard another small sound. A man not as trained as he would not have detected it, but upon hearing it, he knew immediately what it meant. He was not alone in the attic.

He quickly capped the bottle of poison and put it, the cloth, and the silk string in his pouch. Then, trying to be as silent as the person who was in the attic with him, he started moving toward the lattice opening in the crest.

He kept near the edges of the roof as he made his way from rafter to rafter. If he went into the middle of the attic, he would provide the best target, silhouetted against the light from the lattice, so he avoided this space.

As he scrambled along, he caught glimpses of a dark shape also traversing the rafters of the villa’s roof and also staying out of the faint light. The figure seemed agile and surefooted, and the ninja wondered if it was the sleepy samurai he had observed just minutes before. Then it struck him. If the samurai was answering a call of nature, why had he taken his sword with him? The ninja had chosen poison and the silk thread in recognition of the samurai’s strength, and he wondered now if his quarry was trying to turn him into the hunted.

The ninja reached the end of the attic and moved to the center, just under the crest, and quickly stood up. Speed was now more important than stealth, and he yanked the wooden lattice out of place and quickly scrambled onto the tile roof. He carried a short, straight sword in a scabbard tied to his back. It was a Chinese-style sword, not curved like the swords favored by samurai.

He removed his sword from its scabbard and stood slightly behind and to the side of the opening in the roof crest. When his pursuer emerged from the opening he would be vulnerable. Then the ninja would strike.

Holding his sword above his head, ready to deliver a death blow, the ninja focused all his senses on the dark hole in the roof. He listened acutely for the smallest shuffling and his eyes strained to see the slightest difference in the blackness of the hole, which would indicate the emergence of his pursuer.

Time seemed to pass slowly, but from experience the ninja knew that when one was in a heightened state of awareness, time often did strange things. Sometimes it crawled like the turtle, inching its way forward in slow increments, forcing one to show increased patience while waiting for something to happen. On other occasions, time was lightning, striking forward with an alacrity that was truly frightening. On this occasion, time seemed to slow, and the ninja waited patiently for his pursuer to make it to the hole in the roof and his death.

Suddenly, with the sixth sense of all highly trained fighting men, the ninja knew that he had been fooled. He turned to see the ronin,
bathed in moonlight and carrying an unsheathed sword, moving toward him across the tiles of the villa roof. The ronin had realized that the opening was a death trap and had crossed to the other end of the roof, removing the lattice there and emerging to come after his assassin. The ronin was already too close, and the ninja could not drop his guard and throw a knife. Instead, he pivoted and rushed the ronin, determined to take the initiative. His Chinese sword struck the katana, and the clang of steel shattered the stillness of the night, sparks flying from the contact of the two blades.

T
he slope of the slippery tile roof made maneuver difficult. Kaze braced himself as best he could and watched the ninja closely.

The ninja pressed his attack, but Kaze was able to parry all his blows. The ninja, seeing his attack was ineffective, retreated a few paces. Kaze stepped forward, keeping the pressure on. He didn’t want the ninja to have time to throw a knife or some other weapon, an art they were famous for.

“Oi! You! What are you doing up there?”

Attracted by the noise, the ineffective villa guard was finally drawn to the scene of battle, looking up at the two figures on the roof.

“Get more men,” Kaze shouted. “There is an assassin here.”

The ninja took the occasion of Kaze’s speaking to press another attack, thinking the ronin would let his guard down slightly while he was talking. He was wrong. Kaze parried the blows of the ninja without having to give up ground. Kaze was interested in keeping the ninja alive because he wanted to find out who his employer was. He was curious about who would want him dead enough to pay for a ninja. Was it the same one who had paid for the other assassins? He knew it wasn’t Okubo. If Okubo knew where he was staying, Okubo would simply surround the villa with his men and, if necessary, burn it down.

The ninja, realizing he would soon be surrounded, looked around for the best escape route. Kaze knew immediately why the ninja was looking around and pressed his attack. Moving forward, his foot
stepped on a tile that had come loose from its mud base and slipped, throwing him off balance.

With a shout of triumph, the ninja surged forward to take advantage of the mishap. Instead of trying to recover, Kaze let himself fall forward. He brought his sword around as he fell, and it sliced deeply into the ninja’s right leg, cutting the tendons of the knee to the bone. Then Kaze fell to the roof and rolled to its edge. He fell off, but with the agility of a cat he twisted himself around so he landed on his feet. His momentum carried him forward and he did a roll on the ground, springing to his feet as soon as the momentum dissipated.

Still holding his sword, Kaze looked up at the roof and the ninja. The ninja stood balanced on one leg, his other hanging uselessly, bleeding profusely. Hishigawa’s guards were running from the house, and it was obvious that he would soon be surrounded and captured.

Without a word, the ninja reversed his sword and put it under his chin. Putting both hands on the handle, he brought it up and into his throat. He stood for a brief moment like some strange statue, standing on one leg, with the sword impaled in his neck. Then he collapsed, rolling off the roof and falling to the ground.

Kaze ran to the ninja and ripped the cloth from his face. As Kaze suspected, the ninja’s features were unfamiliar to him. The dying man looked up into Kaze’s face with no hate or animosity. Kaze didn’t bother asking him who had hired him. A man who would commit suicide when he was about to be captured would not have the weakness of spirit to make a confession at the moment of death.

“I’ll carve a Kannon for you,” Kaze said.

A flicker of surprise crossed the ninja’s face. Then the brightness left his eyes and he was dead.

         
CHAPTER 20
 

White testament to
a short life of troubled tears.
Bones fill a cold grave
.

 

T
he four figures were huddled together in a deadly serious council.

“Why do you think the ninja was here?” Hishigawa said.

“It was an assassination attempt,” Enomoto said.

“Yes,” Kaze agreed blandly. “Apparently you have created some bitter enemies, Hishigawa-san.”

Ando, the fourth figure, sucked her breath in at the assertion that the ninja was there to assassinate Hishigawa.

“How do you know the ninja was here to assassinate Hishigawa-san?” Enomoto asked.

“Who else? Hishigawa-san himself said there have been attempts on his life lately. That’s why he offered me the job of yojimbo.” Kaze looked at Hishigawa. “Can you tell me about these other attempts and who might have a grudge against you?”

“A man such as myself can make many enemies,” Hishigawa said evasively.

“It’s hard for me to help you if I don’t know the facts,” Kaze said reasonably.

“Well, there is—”

“Hishigawa-san,” Enomoto interrupted. “Before we discuss past
problems, I’d like to ask Matsuyama-san a few questions about this ninja.”

“Dozo, please,” Kaze said, masking his disappointment that Hishigawa had been interrupted.

“How did you come to discover the ninja, Matsuyama-san?”

“I was out to view the moon. It’s in an especially beautiful phase now—almost full but with a delicate sliver still removed from it. When I looked up, I saw a figure on the roof.”

“Why didn’t you call the guard?”

“The guard wasn’t near where I was. There was a handy tree next to the house, so I decided to go up and investigate for myself.”

“Do you know why the ninja removed the lattice screens from both roof crests?”

Kaze smiled. “I imagine he took the wrong one off. He realized he was too far from Hishigawa-san’s sleeping room, so he went to the other end of the villa and removed that screen.”

“Do you really think he was trying to kill Hishigawa-san?” Ando broke in.

Kaze shrugged. “No one else here would be worth spending the money on a ninja. Don’t you agree, Enomoto-san?”

“I suppose so,” Enomoto said.

“Good,” Kaze said. “Now, Hishigawa-san, you were going to tell me the details of the other attempts on your life.”

“Before I left for Kyoto, we noticed a man watching the villa,” Hishigawa said. “Enomoto-san’s guards could never get close enough to him to question him, but he was interested in my movements. Once, when I went to Kamakura with just one guard, he attacked and killed my yojimbo. While he was doing that I managed to escape, but it forced me to move about with two or more guards.”

“Why do you think he wanted to kill you?”

“It’s a personal matter.” Hishigawa looked like he was going to be stubborn. If the attempted killer was Noguchi Mototane, Hishigawa was not going to admit to the vendetta. It was acceptable for the object
of a vendetta to defend himself, but for some reason Hishigawa didn’t want to reveal the vendetta to Kaze.

“Did you eventually kill this assassin?”

“I didn’t kill him. Nor did Enomoto-san or any of my men.” Hishigawa said.

“You said there were many attempts on you life. What else happened?”

“Well, you saw one yourself, when Ishibashi tried to kill me.”

“Any others?”

“Aren’t three attempts to kill me in a few weeks enough?” Hishigawa said indignantly. “First a swordsman kills my yojimbo, then bandits kill my escort and their chief tries to kill me, and now a ninja tries to sneak into my house to assassinate me.”

“I would say three attempts in a short period of time were obviously not enough, Hishigawa-san, because you have survived them all,” Kaze said.

T
he excitement in the household had died down. Enomoto had doubled the guards patrolling outside the house and this presented a small annoyance, but not an obstacle, to Kaze’s slipping away from the villa to go to the place on the grounds that he had spotted earlier.

He had taken the trouble to get a wooden spade from the shed where the gardener stored his tools, and in the pale moonlight it was easy to get back to the location he sought. He squatted for a moment, looking at the ground in the faint light with a hunter’s eye. It was definitely disturbed, but its appearance troubled him because it didn’t look fresh. He stood and stuck the spade in the ground.

The ground had settled, but it was relatively easy to dig. He had only gone down a few hand spans when the square nose of the spade struck something.

Kaze got to his knees and cleared away the dirt at the bottom of the hole with his hands. In the flat silver moonlight, gleaming white bones started emerging from the dark soil.

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