Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (4 page)

“No, Samurai-san, I’m—”

The butt of the staff struck the bandit sharply at the base of his neck, generating another yelp.

“Please don’t insult me,” the ronin said. “It’s obvious you’re following us, just as it’s obvious that your companion is waiting on the Tokaido Road to alert your gang which path we took when we went off the main road.”

Hearing the ronin’s words, the bandit gave a snarl of defiance and knocked the staff away from his chest. The ronin simply twirled the staff 180 degrees and, using the other end, brought it down on the bandit’s neck, pushing down on the man’s throat and pinning him in the mud as raindrops pelted his face. Leaning on the staff slightly to keep the man pinned, the ronin reached down with one hand and pulled out the bandit’s sword, flinging it into the bushes.

“Now,” Kaze said amiably, “what we have is a very interesting situation. It’s not often that we hold our own existence in our hands as clearly as you do at this moment. I have no particular desire to kill
you, although I suspect that your dark life has been lived in a manner that richly deserves killing. But, on the other hand, I don’t want you following us, either. So here’s what I suggest. You tell your friends that when I dropped down on you, you were injured much more seriously than you actually are. Tell them you were unable to walk and therefore couldn’t follow us. You can point them down the road in the direction we’re actually going, so I’m not asking you to lie to them. But I am advising you not to follow us, because if you do, I’ll kill you. Do you understand that?”

The bandit snarled a curse, and Kaze added some pressure to the staff, choking him in midword. The bandit grabbed at the staff to try to relieve the pressure. Tears formed in his eyes from the pain. Kaze eased off and leaned closer to the bandit, staring into the scarred face.

“Defiance is fine, but it’s not called for in this circumstance. I have treated you reasonably, considering the situation. Now prove to me that you have some brains and simply answer my question. The choice is simple. Continue following us and you die. Stay here and you live. Now, do you understand?”


Hai
. Yes,” the bandit croaked, the staff still pressing down on his neck.

“Good. Now remember, your life is in your own hands. If you don’t want it to end today, this will be the last that I see of you.”

Kaze dropped the staff and walked back to the path.

         
CHAPTER 4
 

Bitter memories
gnaw at my soul. How many
tears wash away pain?

 

D
id you kill him?” the merchant asked.

“No.”

“Why not?” Hishigawa looked annoyed.

“Because I didn’t need him dead,” Kaze answered. “If you need him dead, then you can kill him. I’m sure he’s still back where I left him. I threw his sword into the bushes. Perhaps if you hurry, you can get to him before he recovers it.”

Hishigawa was used to having his money buy him respect and the services of ronin. He was also used to a certain brusqueness from his aristocratic customers, but, because of his wealth, not from ronin, even though technically any samurai, including a ronin, was far above the merchant class. Only the handlers of the dead and animal carcasses occupied a lower social class than merchants.

Hishigawa would not have been a successful merchant if he didn’t study men and their nature. It helped him to understand the weakness of a man when he was trading. He saw in the ronin a man of ordinary height, but extraordinary will and skill with a sword. The way he attacked the bandits showed that. Now he was helping to escape those bandits, and he was also helping Hishigawa bring the gold back to his Yuchan. He needed this ronin. At least for now. Hishigawa gave
a quick bow and said, “
Sumimasen
. I’m sorry. I simply wanted to assure that the bandit wouldn’t trouble us.”

“If he does, then I’ll kill him,” Kaze said. “Some place up ahead we’re going to have to actually get off the trail and move across country.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s too easy to follow us when we stay on these trails. If we have to constantly cover up the cart tracks, we won’t make progress at all. Once I’ve covered up where we get off the trail, we can proceed for some distance.”

“To where?” the merchant said. “We have to get to the barrier.”

“We will get to the barrier,” Kaze said. “We’ll only go across country until we see another path going in the direction of the barrier. Then we’ll use that. It will take the bandits quite a while to try to figure out which path we’re on.”

“But it might take us days to get to the barrier that way,” the merchant protested.

“Yes. But if the bandits catch us we won’t get to the barrier at all.”

The merchant saw the logic in Kaze’s statement and said, “All right. I suggest we travel on this path a little way before we leave it. That way, even if the bandits surmise what we’ve done, it will still be harder for them to pick up our trail.”

“Good,” Kaze said. He pointed at the cart.

“You pull, I’ll push, and we’ll stop every fifty paces so I can go back and obliterate the cart tracks.”

The merchant looked up at the heavens. “It’s raining a lot harder now.”

“Yes,” Kaze said, “but raindrops won’t stop men in search of gold.”

At a likely-looking place, he and Hishigawa pushed the cart off the path and started threading their way through the woods. At some junctures they had to take wide detours to avoid thick patches of brush that would have totally stopped the heavy cart. It was hard, exhausting work, and at one point the merchant almost collapsed from fatigue.

“We can leave the cart here and take the chance that the bandits won’t find it,” Kaze said to the weary Hishigawa.

“Leave the gold? Never! This gold belongs to Yuchan as well as me. I’ll never leave it.” The merchant was intransigent about abandoning the cart, but the thought of leaving a fortune seemed to add fire to his muscles, and he tugged at the cart handles with renewed vigor. Kaze insisted they stop and rest a bit. Both men sat silently on the cart, drenched by the rain and too tired to speak.

Finally, Kaze got up and wordlessly took his position behind the cart. Also without words, a tired Hishigawa took up his position between the thick bamboo rails of the cart and started pulling as Kaze pushed.

It was the end of the day by the time the two men came across another path. It seemed to go in the direction of the mountains and not toward the barrier, but Kaze knew they had to take it. The two of them couldn’t continue to manhandle the cart through the woods.

T
he rain was coming down like spears blanketing a battlefield by the time they stopped for the night. Kaze had found a ridge near the path they were on and placed the cart so it straddled it. This had the advantage of making the water run down on each side of the ridge, providing a somewhat drier space under the cart. He was careful not to place the cart in a north-south direction. Corpses were laid out with their heads in the direction of the rat, or north, and he didn’t want to sleep in that position. Both men crawled under. They were exhausted, soaked, and cold.

“This is intolerable!” Hishigawa said, pulling his kimono around him tightly. Water dripped down through the cracks in the cart floor, hitting him on the nose. He jerked his head away, hitting it on the inside of a wheel. “Damn!” he said in pain. “I’m going to get out of here and find some temple or peasant’s hut where I can get some shelter.”


Dozo
. Please,” Kaze said. “Find some building nearby and hole up like an animal in a warm den. Soon the hunters will come to sniff you out. Don’t you think the bandits will search all nearby buildings first?
You’ll be warm and dry until they capture you. And when they do, just don’t tell them where I am, no matter how much they torture you.”

Kaze turned his back to the merchant and closed his eyes. He listened to the grumbling merchant for a few seconds to satisfy himself that Hishigawa was not leaving the meager shelter of the cart.

“You said that bandit I killed was after you because of your wife,” Kaze said, his eyes closed.

“That’s right,” Hishigawa responded.

“Why?”

Hishigawa smiled and closed his eyes, lost in reverie. “She is the most beautiful creature you can imagine. Exquisite skin, as white as a camellia and as silky smooth as the skin of a new persimmon. A mouth with lips as dark red as the most luscious plum. The nape of her neck is long, like a swan’s.” Hishigawa opened his eyes and looked out at the rain. “Even Yuchan’s hands are the most perfectly formed things you’ve ever seen,” he exclaimed. “Delicate, small, and extremely graceful in every movement she makes.”

Kaze turned and looked at the merchant. He had a long, horsey face and baggy eyes. He hardly looked the part of a lovesick swain, but it was obvious that he was enchanted with his wife.

Hishigawa’s hair was shaved like a samurai’s, and at one time his family had undoubtedly been samurai, which was why he affected two names. Commoners, including merchants, were supposed to have only one name; only samurai and nobles were supposed to have two.

After the great battle of Sekigahara, fifty thousand ronin samurai were left without a use for their sword except mischief and banditry. More and more of these samurai, in despair and desperation, were taking their hand to different endeavors, such as farming and other occupations. Many were returning to the soil, maintaining farms. Two generations before, almost all samurai had been soldier-farmers. A professional class of warrior was a relatively recent development, spurred by the wars to unite Japan into a single country. From the
looks of Hishigawa, however, the decision to follow the path of the merchant was not a recent one.

Kaze had mixed feelings about the choice of becoming a merchant. As one of the lowest trades in the social class, the grubbing for money seemed somehow beneath the dignity of a warrior. Yet, he knew one of the foundations and strengths of the Tokugawas’ ascendancy was the legendary tightfistedness of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ieyasu knew that money could be translated into men and arms and power, and he waited, biding his time and gathering his resources until the previous ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, died, leaving a young son and a widow to try to protect his legacy.

Then Ieyasu acted. He attacked the forces loyal to the Toyotomi at Sekigahara during the month that has no Gods. It was the largest battle ever fought by samurai.

At the start of the battle, Ieyasu was outnumbered because his son had been diverted besieging a castle, and one-third of Ieyasu’s army was not on the field. But Ieyasu had two secret weapons: betrayal and greed. He used some of the money he had gathered over a lifetime to bribe forces on the side of the Toyotomi before the battle. They agreed to remain neutral or to turn on their allies in the heat of battle and fight on the Tokugawa side. Ieyasu started the battle seemingly outnumbered, but as the long day wore on, key Toyotomi forces would not attack when ordered to. At the critical moment of the battle, the disloyal troops under the command of Kobayakawa attacked their erstwhile allies. By the end of the battle, Ieyasu was the undisputed ruler of Japan.

To Kaze, Ieyasu’s victory was based on promoting disloyalty. This lack of loyalty and honor struck at the very heart of
bushido
, the warrior’s code, the core of Kaze’s beliefs.

Now Hideyoshi’s widow and son were trapped in Osaka Castle, not quite prisoners, but certainly not free. Ieyasu still paid perfunctory respect to them, but there was no doubt who the real ruler of Japan was. There was also no doubt that it was Ieyasu’s intention to declare himself Shogun.

By tradition, only members of the Minamoto family, the same family that built the Tsurugaoka Shrine in Kamakura, dedicated to Hachiman, the God of War, could become Shogun. The Tokugawas had never been considered as Minamotos. Then, as Tokugawa Ieyasu’s power increased and becoming Shogun became a possibility, he suddenly “discovered” that his lineage was actually connected to the Minamotos, although no such link had been claimed before. So now Ieyasu was suddenly qualified to take the title of Shogun, and people loyal to the Toyotomi, such as Kaze, found themselves penniless. At the same time, people like Hishigawa, who had seen the trend in the new Japan and had capitalized on it, were able to wander the countryside with pushcarts holding a chest full of gold.

“You must love your wife very much,” Kaze said.

“It goes beyond love,” Hishigawa said. “It goes beyond passion and it goes beyond need. This woman is my life and my existence.”

A poetic song from a mud frog, Kaze thought. Love can do amazing things. “You’ve been married a long time?”

“No. Less than a year.”

The newness of the marriage could explain the merchant’s infatuation, but Kaze was still surprised. It was not often that a Japanese man would find passion in his marriage. That’s what concubines, or perhaps young boys, were for.

From the way Hishigawa was talking, it sounded like his marriage was one of those bonding of souls that sometimes occurs in life. This happened much less often in the warrior class than in other classes, because in the warrior class marriages were arranged according to economic and military advantage, with no regard for the feelings of the people actually involved.

Kaze’s own marriage had been arranged this way—a dry alliance between Kaze’s family and the family of his bride. Although his marriage had been proper and respectful, it was not filled with love or passion. He did love the two children the marriage produced, and he grieved for their death much as he grieved for the loss of the Lady.

K
aze had actually only seen his wife once before their wedding. The negotiations between his family and her family were handled by a go-between, and consideration was given to the political and economic consequences of the union, but scant attention was given to the state of Kaze’s heart, save for the fact that he found his new wife acceptable in appearance.

After the marriage, he went through the process of adjustment and sexual accommodation with her, but it was not a relationship that grew to great affection and depth of spirit or passion. He had two children with her and his marriage was normal for a person of his station, with the exception that Kaze never took a concubine or male page for a lover. His taking a lover would have been perfectly acceptable to his wife, but Kaze didn’t choose to, keeping the reason in the secret recesses of his heart.

All in all, his was an extremely proper samurai marriage. So proper that when the castle that he lived in fell in the immediate aftermath of the climactic battle of Sekigahara, Kaze’s wife killed her own children before taking a dagger and shoving it into her own throat to kill herself. This was done to spare the children and herself from humiliation and torture if they were captured alive.

The Lady, the wife of Kaze’s Lord, did not kill her daughter when her castle fell. Kaze never asked her why, but he knew it was because she loved her daughter too dearly and could not bring herself to do what samurai tradition expected of her. She also didn’t kill herself, and Kaze knew this was also related to her daughter. If her daughter was alive, the Lady would also want to be alive, not for her own sake, but so she could fight for and try to protect her daughter. Kaze knew the Lady would not refuse to take her own life out of cowardice. He had seen enough examples of her courage to know that she would not hesitate to do what was required of her. But the love of her daughter changed the requirements of what was proper.

It seemed strange to Kaze that the heart of this aging merchant
should be so captivated by a new wife. Still, the Taiko himself, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had found satisfaction and passion with a new wife at the end of his life. And this new wife had given Hideyoshi a child. In fact, she had given Hideyoshi two children. When the first child died, a second was conceived and born—a son. Since Hideyoshi had a long-standing relationship with his first wife and at least a hundred concubines, there was endless speculation on how Yododono, the mother of the child, could have created such a miracle. The pious believed it was because Yododono had prayed to the proper gods. The cynical believed that Yododono had taken other means, or perhaps other men, to guarantee her conception. In either case, Hideyoshi believed the child to be his and tried to ensure his son would succeed him to the rulership of Japan.

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