Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (2 page)

         
CHAPTER 2
 

I saved a red fox
from a snake. The fox bit me.
Good can bring evil
.

 

H
elp! Somebody help! They’re killing us!”

The plea was punctuated by the distinctive clang of sword blades crashing against each other. The anguished shout and the sound of battle floated over the hillside ahead of Kaze.

Curious, Kaze ran across a small stone bridge and up to the top of the hill, using the gliding run of a man in Japanese straw sandals. At the hill’s apex, he stopped and looked down at the tableau spread before him.

Men were locked in desperate battle, like the
bunraku
puppets of a samurai drama. But in a bunraku the figures are coordinated. A black-robed master puppeteer moved each figure with one or two assistants, also clad in black, who trailed behind the puppeteer like the wings of a crow.

Kaze’s practiced eye could see that here there was no coordination, no plan of battle other than brute force and the weight of numbers.

Eight men were attacking four. The four formed a tight knot around a pushcart. One of the four was standing on the pushcart, an older man dressed as a merchant. He was the one crying for help.

H
ishigawa could see that the situation was desperate. “Help!” he cried again. “Somebody help!” He had one foot on a large strongbox that was tied to the pushcart and in his hands he had a sword, which he was thrusting about inexpertly. He had been robbed earlier that same year and, although he came out of that experience with his life, he was desperate not to be robbed again. There was too much money involved this time. He was also fearful that he would not see his wife, Yuchan, again if he was killed.

The three men in front of him were supposed to stop a robbery. They were handpicked as experienced men who would act as his
yojimbo
, his bodyguards. With the sudden attack by so many bandits, they had jumped to his defense, but he could see they were being pushed back toward the cart by the strength of the bandits’ numbers. The yojimbo were fighting hard. It was a fight rooted in mortal desperation.

One of the bodyguards fell, a large cut cleaving his shoulder and biting into his neck. With an agonized groan, he sank to his knees, a dying man.

The eight bandits pushed forward, squeezing the remaining bodyguards back against the cart. Instead of trying a pincer or flank attack, the bandits simply came crashing down on the two bodyguards like a giant tsunami smashing into the seashore. The guards crumpled under the attack.

Hishigawa looked to the top of the hill and he saw a lone samurai staring down at him, watching the fight. The man was of average height but seemed muscular. He carried a single sword instead of the two normally worn by a samurai. Instead of having the sword tucked in his sash, this samurai had it resting on one shoulder, a hand on the hilt. Hishigawa’s heart sank, because he knew a single samurai could do nothing to stop the attack.

A
t that distance, Kaze could not read the man’s eyes, but it was clear that the man on the pushcart had seen him. As he watched, the man
made a plea that seemed to be aimed directly at him. Fear and desperation tinged the man’s voice as he begged, “Please! Please help us!”

Sighing, Kaze took the scabbard of his katana sword off his shoulder and slipped the blade out of the plain black-lacquer covering.

One of the eight attackers was wounded and appeared to be dying, but that didn’t stop the other seven from pressing forward and cutting down one of the remaining defenders.

“Please!” the man on top of the pushcart pleaded.

Kaze dropped the scabbard of his sword and started running down the hill. A lesser man might have shouted during his attack, but Kaze realized that surprise was as valuable as two additional sword blades in this situation. Instead of shouting as he ran toward the group, the only sound that came from him was the slap of his sandals as they struck the dirt road.

The attackers gave a yell of victory as the last of the defenders fell, slashed by multiple sword blades. They surged forward to surround the man on the cart. The merchant beat wildly at the bandits with his sword. The seven bandits should have been able to cut him down easily, but strangely they hung back, as if they were reluctant to rush the man and kill him. “Surrender,” they called out to the merchant.

This hesitation allowed Kaze to arrive. First one and then a second of the attackers shouted in pain and crumpled to the ground. Surprised, the bandits turned just as a third man received a cut from the unexpected quarter. Kaze had cut down two men from behind and was finishing his stroke on the third.

The odds were still four to one, but in the illogic that marks battle, the four men scattered and ran. They dispersed to the side of the road, disappearing into the dense brush and trees that flanked the highway.

Kaze stood his ground, breathing heavily, unwilling to pursue the four bandits as they ran off. He saw no need to avenge the three dead defenders and had only entered the battle reluctantly, prompted by pity for the desperate cries of the merchant.

Suddenly there was a shout from a new direction. Kaze immediately spun about to see a lone samurai rushing toward the cart.

“It’s the leader of the bandits,” the man on the cart screamed to Kaze. “Protect me! He wants to kill me!”

Kaze stepped in front of the cart to protect the screaming merchant. In the split second between the time Kaze took his position and when the attacker was upon him, Kaze took the measure of the bandit chief.

He was better dressed than the other attackers. His forehead was shaved and his hair was pulled back with a sleek glossiness. On his young face was a look of pure rage. Both hands were on a sword held over his head and high in the air for a
shomen
, a vertical head-cut attack.

The new attacker brought his sword down, and Kaze brought his blade up to parry the blow. The sword blades, both finely polished and shimmering silver in the murky light, came together with a tremendous clang, and Kaze was pushed back a step by the combined momentum of the running man and the force of his overhead blow.

The bandit chief immediately turned his attention to the man on the cart. He seemed to lose interest in Kaze, intent on reaching the merchant, who was now cringing from the fury and hate of the man’s attack.

“No!” Kaze shouted, making it clear to the bandit that he would first have to kill Kaze before he could reach the merchant. The bandit turned his attention back to Kaze.

“Let me kill that scum and you can go,” the bandit said.

“No,” Kaze answered, this time in a low voice. He held his sword in the aimed-at-the-eye position.

The bandit brought his blade back over his head for a second blow, and Kaze centered himself to respond, balancing evenly on his feet and bending his knees to bring his body low to the ground, making himself one with the earth so that he could withstand the furious attack.

The second blow was parried by Kaze’s blade, but this time, instead
of taking the full force of the blow, Kaze deftly twisted his blade to deflect the bandit’s attack. This was to bring the bandit’s blade low to the ground so that he would have a longer distance to draw his blade back for a third blow, giving Kaze enough time to set up an attack of his own.

Realizing what Kaze was doing, the bandit jumped back a pace, planting his own feet and lowering his center of gravity, at the ready to meet Kaze’s attack. But Kaze didn’t attack. He stood silently watching his opponent, noticing every characteristic of his stance and swordsmanship, looking for an advantage. The bandit stole a quick glance toward the man on the pushcart and once again rage contorted his face.

He looked back at Kaze. “I have no argument with you,” the man spat out. “Get out of here and I’ll let you live. I just want him.” He pointed at the merchant with his chin.

“Oh, dear Buddha,” the merchant groaned, “please save me!”

Kaze didn’t know if the last request was directed toward Buddha or himself.

“He means to kill me. Please don’t let him slaughter me! You can see I have no skills with the sword.” This time the merchant was clearly addressing Kaze.

“That’s right!” the bandit shouted. “I mean to cut your guts out and hang them on a tree with you still living and attached to them.”

Another groan came from the merchant. “You can have the woman,” the merchant said, “just let me live.”

“It’s beyond that,” the man said. “Now I won’t be satisfied while you still live.”

“Please don’t abandon me,” the man pleaded with Kaze. “I’ll give you anything, anything! Just don’t let him kill me.”

“Go on, get out,” the samurai said to Kaze. A tinge of contempt colored the man’s voice, as if Kaze was an object of disgust for defending the merchant.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I care to do that,” Kaze responded coolly.

Instantly, the bandit attacked. He was a skilled swordsman, and
Kaze saw no apparent weakness in the man’s attack. He put his own blade in motion to parry the blow.

Kaze caught the man’s blade and deflected it. Then he pressed an attack of his own. He took a cut at the man’s head, but the bandit managed to parry it. Without pausing, Kaze took a second and third cut at the young man. Although he was driven back, the bandit stopped the cuts before Kaze’s blade could penetrate his defenses.

Kaze was impressed. The young man was an excellent fencer, sound in fundamentals and with the strength and agility of youth. The two men separated and Kaze launched another attack, shouting as he rushed toward the young man.

Kaze brought his blade down in an overhead cut with all his strength. The young man raised his own sword to parry the blow, just as Kaze had done at the fight’s beginning.

When the two swords met, Kaze felt the force of the blow in his wrists, arms, shoulders, and throughout the rest of his body. But in the vibrations of this violent clash of steel, something felt unusual and false. Kaze heard a brittle metallic snapping sound and noted a peculiar feel, one he had never experienced before. He immediately knew that not only was something wrong, but that something was drastically wrong. The unthinkable happened.

To his utter amazement, Kaze’s sword broke in two. The end of the sword flew off and went spinning through the air, hitting the dirt a few feet away from the combatants. The bandit gave a shout of triumph and took a cut at Kaze’s shoulder and neck.

Kaze caught the blow in the fork of his
tsuba
, his sword guard, and the broken piece of his sword blade. After absorbing the brunt of the blow, Kaze took one hand off the handle of his sword and twisted forward. He grabbed the handle of the
wakizashi
, the short sword, carried by his opponent in his sash and drew it out of the scabbard. He thrust it back into the man’s stomach, all in one smooth, reciprocating motion.

The man gave a grunt of surprise and then of pain. He drew his own sword back to take another cut at Kaze. Kaze then yanked the
short sword, cutting the muscles of his opponent’s abdomen. The man groaned and fell back on the ground in a sitting position. He looked up at Kaze with an expression that changed from pain to anger to sorrow. With a soft hiss of air, he crumpled the remaining distance to the earth and fell back dead.

Kaze stood with his opponent’s sword in one hand and the broken stub of his own sword in the other. He was panting for breath from exertion, stunned by what had happened.

“Superb!” Kaze heard the merchant shouting. “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant!”

Kaze glanced over at the man. He was still standing on the cart, one foot on the chest bound to the cart. He was wearing a brown kimono with a white peony pattern. He looked to be in his mid-forties, with gray streaks at the temples. He had leathery brown skin, probably from spending many days on the road as he did his trading. He had a large fleshy nose, somewhat unusual for a Japanese. The cloth of his kimono was of fine quality.

The merchant jumped off the cart and walked over to the body of Kaze’s most recent opponent. He spit on the corpse, and then he hiked up his kimono, moving aside his loincloth and making a stream of water on the face of the corpse in a gesture of utter contempt.

The merchant’s act offended Kaze, but it was already in process, so Kaze saw no point in objecting. Instead, when the merchant was done Kaze walked over to where his opponent had dropped his sword and picked it up to look at it.

In almost every respect it was a standard Japanese katana. The sword did not seem remarkable in any way. There seemed to be no reason this sword could break Kaze’s.

Kaze looked at the remainder of his own broken sword and shook his head in disbelief. The sword had been a faithful companion for years, seeing Kaze through numerous battles, both during the short and violent civil war and the years since as Kaze wandered Japan. That it should break was unthinkable. Yet the remnant of the sword in Kaze’s hand showed that in fact this had happened.

“It was lucky you were so quick.” The merchant had come up to Kaze after finishing his business with the corpse. “Grabbing a man’s own wakizashi and using it to kill him! That’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Kaze raised an eyebrow at the merchant but said nothing.

“Excuse me,” the merchant said, bowing. “I am Hishigawa Satoyasu, the merchant.”

Kaze noted that the merchant affected a double name, but said nothing. Instead, he pointed to the dead corpses littering the ground around the cart. “And who were all these?”

“Three of them were my yojimbo,” the merchant said. “The rest were members of his gang.” The merchant jerked his chin toward Kaze’s last opponent.

“And who is he?” Kaze asked.

“He’s Ishibashi, the chief of the bandits who attacked me. One of the most disgusting men you’d ever want to meet.”

“And what was this fight all about?”

“A robbery, of course.”

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