Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (5 page)

Now the child and his mother ruled only Osaka Castle and there was speculation that they would not be ruling that for long. Ieyasu continued to give proper respect to the memory of Hideyoshi, but his forces were gathering the threads of power and weaving them into a mighty and enveloping tapestry.

Hishigawa remained quiet, perhaps still caught up in the memory of his wife. Soon Kaze heard snoring as the exhausted merchant fell into a deep sleep, despite the miserable conditions. Kaze focused on the sound of the falling raindrops hitting the cart and the ground around him, filtering out the man’s snores.

Splat-splaaat-splat-splat-splaat. The rain was coming down harder now, hitting the earth in an irregular rhythm. It was a mesmerizing sound, and one that brought back memories that flooded Kaze’s mind like the water washing down the hillside.

Kaze reflected on how strange it was that so many of his encounters with the Lady involved falling water.

         
CHAPTER 5
 

Falling water and
falling tears. Both can cleanse and
both can drown the soul
.

 

H
is very first glimpse of the Lady was when he was ten. He had been with his Sensei, his teacher, for about two years. Every time Kaze had thought he had mastered something that the Sensei had to teach him, the old man would suddenly increase the difficulty of the lesson with an effortless grace, which always left Kaze frustrated that he would never truly learn anything, even the most rudimentary thing.

Once, when he expressed his feelings about this to his teacher, the old man had looked at him very seriously and said, “If you are going to follow the way of bushido, then you must learn throughout your entire life. After a while the mechanical things I can teach you will no longer be new, but in their application and feel they will always be new. The simplest parry with your sword—the very first one I taught you—will evolve through the years as you grow in skill and understanding. So even though the motions you make will be the same ones that you made when you were eight years old and started your lessons with me, throughout your entire life those motions will be ever changing, yet still the same. Thus it is with life—ever changing but still the same. Just as important, you must expand your circle of skills beyond the sword to art and literature and music. The true warrior
is not just a killer. Remember the lesson of Yoshimori and the foxes.”

Kaze looked puzzled.

“The great warrior Yoshimori had a suit of exceptionally fine armor commissioned,” the Sensei continued. “Part of the process of creating this armor was the reinforcement of key points with fresh fox skin. The special glue used to attach these reinforcements took three days and nights of constant attention to prepare. Someone had to be stirring it continuously and minding the fire to make sure it did not get too hot. Three times the master armorer prepared this glue, but Yoshimori’s vassals could not supply a freshly killed fox whose skin could be used to finish the armor, so each time days of effort were wasted and the glue had to be thrown away.

“In frustration the armorer complained to Yoshimori because he had to throw away three batches of glue after laboring over each of them for three days and three nights. Yoshimori immediately told the armorer to start another batch of glue because he was very anxious to have this new suit of armor. He said he would personally deliver a freshly killed fox to the armorer. He then took his bow and went alone into the hills above Kyoto hunting for foxes.

“He hunted all day, trudging up and down hills in the hot sun, using his keen instincts to try to find the lair of a fox. Despite his best efforts, he could not find a fox, even though the hills around Kyoto are usually teeming with them. He returned that night puzzled and discouraged, determined to do better the next day.

“The second day he went hunting again in a different area. Once again, after a hot day searching the hillsides, he could not find a fox. Yoshimori returned home empty-handed, and he knew that the special glue would be ready the next evening.

“The third day, Yoshimori was up before dawn and scouring the hills. As on the previous days, he could find no trace of foxes, and he grew increasingly frustrated and anxious. As the sun dipped low on the horizon, he thought about how humiliated he would be if he did not make good on his promise to deliver a fresh fox skin to the armorer.
Just as he was about to return home, a flash of brown caught his eye. Fitting an arrow to his bow, he stealthily crept toward where he had seen what he thought to be a glimpse of a fox’s fur.

“Suddenly, he came upon a family of foxes trapped and cowering under a rock. It was a male, a female, and a young kit. Yoshimori was pleased, because he would be able to have his pick of foxes now and have his armor completed. He would not suffer embarrassment because he could make good on his boast to provide a freshly killed fox skin to complete the armor. As he drew back his bow, he noticed that the male and female fox did not run away. Instead, they pressed in close to their tiny baby, protecting it from Yoshimori’s arrow.

“As he saw this scene, he was moved to pity, for he thought that even these dumb creatures were acting with bravery, ready to sacrifice their own lives to protect their child. He lowered his bow and vowed to tell the armorer that he could not kill a fox on his hunting expedition, even though it would cost him great embarrassment to make such an admission. The armorer was so angry that he vowed not to finish the armor for Yoshimori, an unprecedented insult for a samurai to suffer at the hands of a tradesman.

“Yet, despite the embarrassment, Yoshimori did the proper thing. He was not a wanton killer, but a complete warrior. He understood the difference between killing and murder. It is the warrior’s duty to kill or be killed, but only the outlaw or brute commits wanton murder, even of a simple creature like a fox. As you grow and mature you must strive to be a complete warrior, too. The natural result of our art, our
gei
, is death—either your death or your opponent’s. Yet this death must always be honorable and never simple murder. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” the Sensei asked.

“I think so,” Kaze answered.

“Good. I want you to meditate on that, but I want you to learn how to meditate while suffering distractions.” Saying that, the Sensei took him from where they had been talking to the foot of Dragonfly Falls.

Dragonfly Falls was a small but beautiful waterfall near the Sensei’s
hut in Kaze’s home prefecture. The waterfall tumbled the height of three men in a steady silver stream. It was framed by black volcanic rocks in a rugged cliff. Lush green ferns and trees surrounded the picturesque setting. The sound of the falling water made a refreshing music that eased the soul. It was a favorite diversion to pass by the waterfall when any traveler was in the neighborhood, and this diversion was shared by intense orange and bright blue dragonflies, who gave the falls its name. The insects seemed to share the pleasure of humans in loitering near the beauty of the falls.

“At this time of year the water of the falls will be cold from snow runoff,” the Sensei said. “I want you to stand under the waterfall and meditate on the lesson of Yoshimori. I want you to reflect on what it means to kill and not be a murderer.”

After two years, Kaze had learned not to hesitate at the Sensei’s orders. He shrugged off his kimono, leaving him standing only in his
fundoshi
loincloth.

“Do you know why I want you to do this reflection while standing under this waterfall?”

“Yes, Sensei, you want to see if I’m tough enough to withstand the icy water.”


Baka!
Fool!”

Kaze cringed, and the Sensei sighed. In a gentler voice he said, “There are ways to toughen you up without being cruel. The purpose of this exercise is not to mortify the flesh, but to learn to focus. Just as a Zen priest will sit under a waterfall to meditate, now you must meditate. I will leave you here, and when you’ve truly focused and thought about what we’ve talked about today, then you can come back to the hut.”

“Yes, Sensei,” Kaze said.

Without another word of instruction the Sensei turned and left.

Kaze stepped into the cold water of the pool at the bottom of the falls and immediately felt the truth of the Sensei’s prediction of how icy the water would be. He waded out to the tumbling waterfall, feeling the drops hitting his skin like crystals in an ice storm. Taking a
deep breath to steel himself against the cold, he stepped under the stream of water coming down Dragonfly Falls and turned to face outward. He put his hands together, closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate as the water from the falls pummeled his head and shoulders and made his body shake from its frigid embrace.

It was hard to do what the Sensei instructed him to, but he tried to turn his thoughts and feelings inward, thinking about the lesson of Yoshimori. His powers of concentration were not strong enough and the noise of the falling water and the cold bothered him sufficiently so that he had a hard time focusing. He squeezed his eyes tighter and tried to think even more single-mindedly about the story he had been told.

Then he heard a sound that disturbed him much more than the falling water and noise and frostiness of his surroundings. It was the sound of a young girl giggling.

Because of the popularity of Dragonfly Falls and its beauty, it was not unexpected that someone else might come by. But it annoyed him that some young girl found his attempts to meditate under the tumbling water an excuse for laughter. In moments the young girl’s laughter was joined by the sound of three or four men, and Kaze opened his eyes to see what was going on.

In front of him was a bamboo palanquin held by two
kago
porters. To the front and back of the kago were two samurai acting as guards. Sitting in the kago, the protective bamboo strip curtains raised so she could see the view, was the most beautiful girl Kaze had ever seen. Her face was oval with high cheekbones and a small pointed chin. Her large, expressive eyes were sparkling with some forbidden merriment. She held her hand to her mouth as she giggled uncontrollably. The porters and samurai guards had joined her in laughter, but theirs was a hearty guffaw.

When the girl removed her hand to suck in some air, Kaze could see a small mouth, perfectly formed with even white teeth. The smoothly arched eyebrows that accented her eyes looked natural rather than painted on. Her long black hair was in a casual style suitable
for traveling, and her robes were extremely rich, including a kimono with a pattern that showed
botan
, peonies, scattered across a large brown branch.

Kaze was stunned by her exquisite beauty, but this beauty also heightened his discomfort about her laughing at him. Kaze closed his eyes and tried to concentrate even harder, to squeeze out the distraction that this rude group of people was causing him.

“Hey, boy,” a male voice called to him.

Kaze was determined to ignore the summons.

“Boy!”

Kaze concentrated even harder.

“Please cover yourself, boy,” the man said.

Kaze was puzzled by what the man meant, and, reluctantly, he opened his eyes again and stared out at the group. The water streaming down his face blurred his vision, but he could see that one of the samurai guards was lowering the kago’s protective bamboo curtain on the young girl, while the other, the man who had shouted at Kaze, was pointing down toward Kaze’s groin.

At first Kaze did not understand what the man was doing. Then he understood that he meant Kaze should check himself. Looking down, Kaze saw to his astonishment that the strength of the water coming down the waterfall had actually loosened his loincloth. Kaze was so numb from the cold that he hadn’t noticed. And although the fundoshi was still on Kaze, the cloth had pushed to one side, exposing him. His young manhood was shrunken and shriveled by the cold water, but it was still plainly visible for all to see.

Normally Kaze was very comfortable with his body, but discovering why the beautiful young girl was laughing at him caused him to blush so hotly that, at least on his face, it momentarily blanked out the cold of the water.

Mortified, Kaze immediately turned his back to the group on the bank and the girl who had found his manhood a source of amusement. It was a long time before Kaze could concentrate on the tale of Yoshimori and foxes, as ordered. It was so long he almost froze.

M
ore than a decade later, Kaze was a rising star in his Lord’s service. He had left the Sensei’s training years ago, yet he often thought about the old man and the lessons he had learned.

After returning to his family from the Sensei, Kaze was married. After marriage, he got a post at his Lord’s castle. The strength of his character and martial skills soon earned him a rapid string of advancements.

One day the Lord’s castle was in a frenzy of excitement and anticipation because the Lord’s bride was arriving at the castle for the first time. As with Kaze’s marriage, this union was made on the basis of political, financial, and military considerations, but rumors circulated that the young Lord was also getting a woman of remarkable beauty.

Kaze was chosen to lead the escort that was to meet the future Lady of the domain at the border and escort her to the Lord’s castle. He sat in his best battle armor, astride his favorite horse, with the
ashigaru
, the foot troops, selected for the rest of the honor guard, waiting for the bride’s party to arrive at the border.

Before the Lady arrived, the martial display was literally and figuratively dampened by the start of a driving rainstorm. It beat down on the assembled troops, making them drenched and miserable, but it also made their helmets and armor glisten. The line of men formed a serpentine cordon, the wet scales of their leather
do
, or chest protectors, blending together to create the illusion of a dragon’s body, with Kaze at its head. Kaze wore his best armor, including a metal
kabuto
, or helmet. Some kabuto for generals had enormous crests on them, to allow them to be identified on the battlefield, but Kaze’s helmet just had a modest copper crescent on its front.

Kaze was thinking about getting his troops out of the rain when the vanguard of the Lady’s entourage was spotted. Kaze gave an order in a voice trained to rise above the din of battle, and the men snapped to attention, holding their spears smartly to their sides. Kaze had
trained these men, and he was proud of their appearance and discipline.

In a few minutes, four samurai on horseback, the advanced guard of the bride’s party, reached Kaze’s position. Then the palanquins of the Lady and two of her companions came by, followed by an oxcart full of luggage. The palanquins carrying the Lady’s companions were simple bamboo kago, but the Lady was in a fancy
norimono
. The lacquer work and polished brass fittings of the norimono broadcast the wealth of the Lady’s background, and the painted family crest on the folding door of the norimono proclaimed her lineage. Because it had this crest, instead of the three plum blossom crest of the Lord, Kaze knew this norimono would be returned to the Lady’s family after the wedding.

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