Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (3 page)

“You exchanged words. This is more than a robbery.”

“Well, yes. There’s that. It was also about a woman.”

“What woman?”

“My wife, Yuchan,” the merchant said simply.

“What?” Kaze asked.

“My wife. That man wanted my wife, and nothing was going to stop him from having her. He was obsessed with her. He decided the best way to have her was to kill me.”

Kaze looked at the merchant again, taking in the roll of flesh around his belly and his bandy legs.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the merchant said. “How could someone that looks like me have a wife that’s worth desiring? But my wife is much younger than I. A real beauty. I have businesses in Kamakura, Kyoto, and Edo. In Kamakura I’ve created a special environment just for her. I call it the Jade Palace. In it, I’ve crafted a separate world dedicated to the comfort and pleasure of my wife. Before I
knew he was a bandit, I made the mistake of letting Ishibashi meet my wife, and he became obsessed with her beauty. He actually tried to buy her from me! But of course I refused to part with her. She’s mine, and mine alone!” The merchant said the last words savagely. He shook with emotion.

It was a few seconds before the merchant could compose himself and continue. “He’s been waiting his turn, he and his entire gang. He intended to kill me and then to take my wife as his own. But thanks to you, Ishibashi is the one that’s dead now, and so is a good part of his gang. You were superb!”

Kaze said nothing.

Kaze took his opponent’s sword and walked to the side of the road where a tree was growing. Seeing a likely limb, he took two cuts at it, trimming it to a piece roughly the length of the span of his hand.

“What are you doing?” the merchant asked, greatly puzzled.

Kaze made no answer. He walked up to the top of the hill and retrieved his scabbard. Taking the ko-gatana from its place in the scabbard, Kaze started carving as he walked back toward the merchant.

The merchant waited for Kaze’s return. His lidded eyes were heavy with curiosity. Kaze continued carving the piece with a practiced hand.

“What are you doing?” the merchant asked again.

“Easing some souls.”

The merchant opened his mouth to say more but couldn’t think of another question to ask in the face of such a cryptic remark. Instead, he watched as Kaze transformed the piece of tree limb into the figure of a woman, deftly creating the shoulders, neck, and head of the figure by making rapid cuts to the soft wood with the sharp knife.

As the image emerged from the limb, the merchant exclaimed, “It’s a Kannon!”

Kaze nodded and continued his carving. Under his skilled hands the image of the Goddess of Mercy emerged. Looking around, he realized
he wouldn’t be able to bury all the bodies about him. He took the image of the goddess and placed her in the crook of the tree that he had cut the limb from, positioning her so she could survey the scene of the battle and the dead bodies that littered it.

“Do you have water?” Kaze asked, suddenly thirsty.

“Yes,” the merchant responded, scampering off to retrieve a water jug from the cart. Kaze looked up at the sky and reflected that he could soon get a drink of water just by opening his mouth and tilting his head back, but he gratefully accepted the water jug from the merchant and took a long swallow.

Returning the jug, Kaze examined the dead bandit’s sword once again. Its sword guard was made of iron, with a cherry blossom pattern. Highlights of a cherry branch formed the outer edge of the guard, the edges of the branch picked out in gold. The individual cherry blossoms were tiny sweeps of silver, so it looked like the blossoms were catching the last rays of the setting sun as they fluttered to the ground. To Kaze and most samurai, life was symbolized by the falling cherry blossom, fragile and ephemeral.

The blade of the dead man’s sword was about the size of the sword that had broken. Katana were long swords, but they were not forged to a set length. Often the length was adjusted to the size of the man. Kaze tentatively slipped the dead man’s sword into his plain black-lacquer scabbard. It was not a perfect fit, but it would do until he was able to figure out how to get another sword made for him.

He tucked the scabbard into his sash and started walking off down the road.

“Where are you going?” the merchant said, alarmed.

“As you see, I am walking down the Tokaido Road. I’m resuming my journey.”

“Wait! You can’t go and leave me,” the merchant said.

“Why can’t I?” Kaze answered.

“I want you to be my bodyguard, my yojimbo.”

         
CHAPTER 3
 

Travel makes strange friends.
Standing under a tree in
rain draws us too close
.

 

Y
ou want me to be your bodyguard?” Kaze asked incredulously.

The merchant waved about him. “You can see my men are dead, and I still need protection.”

“Why?” Kaze asked.

“Because that dog’s offal still has men,” the merchant said, pointing to the dead bandit chief. “They will gather others and they’ll come after me again. Their obsession for my Yuchan knows no limits.”

Kaze eyed the merchant warily for several moments. Then he said, “You said the bandit was after you because he wanted your woman. Now he’s dead. It’s true that an
obake
, a ghost, can still desire a woman, but it’s not true that an obake can organize his men and continue to attack you. They can’t all desire your wife the way Ishibashi did.”

Hishigawa pushed on without the slightest hesitation. “It’s just that I know his group and how they think. They’ll never let me live. Of course, the group won’t have the same passion for my woman that Ishibashi did, but they will have a passion for avenging his death.”

“In that case, I’m the one who must worry, because I am the one who killed him,” Kaze said.

“But his men won’t know that,” the merchant argued. “They’ll
think that I killed him. And they’ll gather their forces and recruit new men and come after me.”

Kaze looked at the merchant. The merchant stared back at him with frog’s eyes. Instead of pursuing the argument, Kaze turned on his heels and started walking down the Tokaido Road again.

“Wait!” the merchant said.

Kaze continued walking.

“Please, wait! I’ll tell you the truth,” he shouted. His voice was tinged with fear and apprehension.

Kaze stopped and turned around, but he didn’t come closer to the merchant. The merchant ran up to him, a look of desperation on his face.

“And what is the truth?” Kaze said.

The merchant sighed, saying more to himself than to Kaze, “I guess I have no choice but to tell you.”

Kaze shrugged. “It’s all the same to me. You can tell the truth or not. But if you don’t tell me the truth I’ll leave. If you do tell me the truth I still might not stay, but it would be nice to know the cause of all the killing I’ve just done.”

The merchant sighed once more, as if telling the truth was difficult for him. “It is true that Ishibashi wanted my wife. It was an obsession with him, the kind of lust that spreads from the groin until it poisons the blood and then eventually crazes the mind. Yet there’s something more involved in this particular story.” He pointed to the pushcart and the chest that was strapped to it. “On that cart is gold. I have businesses in Kyoto, Edo, and Kamakura. I have to transfer funds from all those interests. Edo is growing so fast since the Tokugawa victory that it requires an influx of gold to keep up with the growth. I was transferring funds from Kyoto to Edo, and that’s the reason I was attacked on the road. Ishibashi’s personal animosity was directed toward me because of his lust for my woman, but the gang was motivated to attack because of their greed. Although the lust was killed with the bandit leader, the greed is still very much alive in the hearts of his
followers. I’m sure they’ll come again, and I’ll be helpless here without you. You have to get me to the next guard barrier.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ll pay you.”

Kaze tightened his lips in disgust with the talk of payment. Merchants loved such talk, but it was not in the nature of a true samurai to concern himself with such things.

When he was a castle samurai instead of a ronin, his wife handled the finances. She would outfit him in armor and assure he had proper horses and retainers to go to war. She and an accountant handled all the funds for the castle that Kaze ruled. Kaze knew the total income of his land in
koku
, the amount of rice it took to feed a man for one year, but he had absolutely no idea what his personal finances were like. It was beneath the dignity of a true samurai to worry about money.

Still, his life had changed in many ways over the past two years, and he had learned the importance of money. If he had no money, it would impede his search for the girl. Also, without money he would not be able to replace the sword in his scabbard with another one. As much as he tried to balance and calm his spirit, he was still greatly disturbed by the breaking of his sword and the fact that he was carrying a dead man’s katana.

The katana was the soul of a samurai. It was shrouded in myth as well as mystery. One of the key symbols of Shinto was a sword. A samurai using a sword taken from a dead body seemed to violate the ideals of purification and spirituality. Kaze was uneasy about using such a sword.

As if he was reading Kaze’s thoughts, the merchant said, “I’ll give you enough so that you can buy another sword. A fine sword to replace the one that was broken. Kamakura has the finest swordsmiths in Japan. We’ll go to my home there instead of continuing to Edo. You can have your pick of any sword in Kamakura, and I will pay for it!”

Kaze wondered about taking money for his services, but he realized that for most of his life as a warrior he had received some kind of
payment for his services. The payment was often in rice or land or honors, but it was still payment.

“Until the next barrier?” Kaze confirmed.

“Yes, just until the next barrier. There I should be able to get some more men to help me finish the journey safely. When I get home to Kamakura I’ll send the money on to Edo under heavier guard. You can accompany me to Kamakura, and I will pay you when I’m safely home.”

“You pull on the handles of the cart and I’ll push it,” Kaze said.

Smiling, the merchant put away his sword blade and got between the handles of the cart, pulling it down the Tokaido Road with Kaze behind pushing. The cart was surprisingly heavy. Kaze thought that the chest must contain a substantial amount of gold.

As Kaze pushed the cart, he realized they were being followed. The bandits he had chased away had found courage in their greed, or perhaps they had realized that there were only two men opposing them. They flitted from tree to tree, remaining hidden in the brush along the side of the road.

“How far is it to the next barrier?” Kaze asked.

“We should be there by tomorrow,” the merchant answered.

A day, a night, and part of a day again. Plenty of time for the bandits to regroup and plan another attack.

Kaze pushed the cart a bit faster. The cart lurched forward and struck the merchant in the back. He looked over his shoulder. “Be careful,” he said. “Don’t push so energetically.”

“The bandits are following us,” Kaze answered. “If we pick up the pace they either have to come out in the open and start following us on the road, where we can watch them, or they can stay in the woods and start slipping behind us. In either case the result will be good for us.”

“You’ve seen them?” the merchant said, looking around.

“Stop looking,” Kaze said. “They’re trying to follow us in the woods in an effort to prevent us from knowing that they’re following. If you make it clear that we can see them, then they’ll start trying to
be more clever. We don’t need them to be more clever. We’re the ones who should be clever.”

Kaze continued to push the cart down the road while the merchant pulled it using the bamboo handrails. Kaze could tell the merchant was not used to extended periods of physical exertion and that they would not be able to keep up such a rapid pace for very long. He bent his head down as he pushed, not because he was already tired, but so he could peek under his arms and see the bandits who were following them. He caught brief glimpses of them through the brush and trees that bordered the road. It took several sightings, but he became convinced that there were only two of them following. He looked at the other side of the road to see if he could see the other two bandits, but either they were much better at following than the first two or they weren’t there.

“How far away did you say the barrier was?” Kaze said.

“A day and a half,” the merchant said, panting.

The barrier was a checkpoint along the Tokaido Road, a way of controlling and monitoring the movement of people. It was a place where there would be guards and large crowds and where the merchant would find safety. Kaze mulled over why only two bandits were following them and asked the merchant, “Do you know if the road ahead cuts back or curves?”

“It’s fairly straight for quite a distance,” the merchant said, panting even more heavily. Then he added, “I don’t think I can keep this pace up.”

“We’re going to have to get off the Tokaido Road and move onto one of the secondary paths,” Kaze said.

“What are you talking about?” the merchant asked. “Moving this cart will be even harder if we get off the main highway and onto some kind of side road.”

“We have no choice.”

“Why do you say that?” the merchant said, looking over his shoulder at Kaze, slowing down his pace with the cart.

“Because there are only two bandits following us.”

The merchant looked puzzled. “What does that mean?”

“It means that if the road cut back or curved ahead, then the other two might be moving across country to cut us off and ambush us.”

“But the road is straight.”

“Yes. That means that the two have probably gone to gather more men. There’s a day and a half of travel ahead of us. We can’t move very fast with this cart. If we stay on the highway, there’s ample time for them to get more men and attack us. The two following us are just to shadow us and make sure they know where we are.”

“But what good does going off the Tokaido onto some side road do us?”

“It’s simple. They have to leave at least one man where we branch off the highway to guide the rest of them.”

“But one of them will still be following us.”

“Then we can branch off again, and if he doesn’t stop to direct them at our second turn, then I can take care of him. In any case, it will be hard for the bandits to find us if we are taking some of the side roads instead of the main Tokaido.”

“But which side road should we take?”

“The first one that seems to be going in the general direction of the barrier. We’ll eventually work our way back to the main highway.”

“But on the main highway we might meet others.”

“How many people are traveling the Tokaido today? If you do meet others, do you think they will help you?” Kaze asked. “Do you think another merchant will risk his life for you? Or perhaps you think a group of other ronin would be less dangerous than the bandits following you, especially when they find out you have gold in this chest?”

The merchant was silent, apparently considering his dilemma.

“What if you’re wrong about where the other two went?” he eventually asked.

“And what if I’m right?” Kaze answered.

After a few seconds, the merchant said, “All right. If nothing else, if we get on a side path maybe we can slow down this murderous pace.”

“No,” Kaze said, “we shouldn’t slow down. At least not yet. If the two men following us split up, as I anticipate, I want our remaining shadow to fall behind us more. I want a little time between us.”

T
he two bandits following them had a short argument when Kaze and the merchant pulled off the Tokaido Road. The one who won the argument got to stand by the road waiting for his fellows to join him so he could direct them. The one who lost continued to follow the pushcart.

As the bandit followed, big, thick drops of rain started splattering the dusty surface of the road. Within a few minutes, the rain started coming down in a steady curtain. The bandit pulled his kimono about him tightly. But the rain made it a lot easier to follow the push-cart.

He could clearly see the fresh ruts of the pushcart’s wheels going down the track. He slowed his pace and fingered a large scar on his cheek as he thought about the situation. He grinned to himself, because he could now follow them at his leisure. They couldn’t get away leaving such an obvious trail.

The bandit had followed for a distance when the cart’s ruts pulled off the road. Puzzled, he followed. He watched the ground before him, intent on following the ruts in the rain-soaked earth. It wasn’t as easy as the road, but the ground was now sufficiently soft that he could continue his shadowing without difficulty.

The ruts continued off the road and into the woods for a short distance. He soon came to a place where a large tree was growing right in the middle of the cart tracks. A rut from one wheel clearly passed to the right and the other to the left of the tree trunk, and the bandit stood for a moment, stupefied, trying to understand how the cart could pass through a sturdy tree.

As he contemplated this problem, he heard a rustling in the tree above him. Blinking against the heavy rain, he looked up to see the soles of two straw sandals rushing down on him. Before he could get over his surprise, the feet hit him on the chest. The bandit’s arms
flew in the air, and he fell backward into the soft mud with a loud squish.

The breath was knocked out of him. Gasping, he looked up and saw the ronin who had killed his companions staring down at him. The ronin was holding a freshly cut staff, probably from a sapling growing by the side of the road. Fear gripped the bandit’s bowels.


Konnichi wa
. Good afternoon,” the ronin said pleasantly.

The bandit reached to pull his sword from its scabbard. The ronin used his staff to give the supine bandit a hard rap on his wrist, causing paralyzing pain. The bandit yelped and withdrew his hand from his sword’s handle.

He then tried to sit up, but once again the staff came into play. The butt of the staff thumped the bandit on the chest, pushing him back into the mud.

“What?” the bandit finally was able to say.

“Not a very polite greeting,” the ronin mused, “but I suppose it will have to do. Now, I see you are following us.”

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