Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (6 page)

The companions in the kago had chosen to follow the Lady to ease her loneliness at being sent to a new family to live. The Lady’s new family, the family she was marrying into, would be expected to arrange suitable marriages for these companions in exile when the proper time came.

The remaining troops escorting the Lady marched past Kaze’s guard, their heads bent into the rain. They stood opposite Kaze’s troops, forming a corridor of honor for the Lady’s palanquin. Walking with the bowlegged gait of palanquin porters, two men carried the small covered platform hanging from a thick lacquered beam between the two rows of troops. The palanquins of the companions were put on the wet ground a proper distance from the changing of the escorts ceremony.

The rain had been reduced to a steady curtain, so Kaze decided to greet the Lady. He jumped off his horse. The wooden, C-shaped stirrups allowed him to ride in sandals, the front of his sandaled foot fitting into the open end of the C. The leader of the Lady’s escort came forward and announced his lineage and his assignment of escorting the Lady to the border. Kaze also announced his name and lineage and declared that his assignment was to escort the Lady from the border to the Lord’s main castle, a half-day’s journey away. Both men
bowed to each other, each carefully bending at precisely the same angle to show they were equals. Now the responsibility for the Lady’s safety had been passed to Kaze.

He walked forward and saluted, kneeling on one knee and bowing his head. After announcing his name, Kaze said, “I have the honor of escorting you to our Lord’s castle. Despite the weather, I hope you will have a marvelous nuptial ceremony and that your life in our domain will be a happy one. There’s a teahouse less than half a
ri
down the road. We can rest there if you want, or we can continue to the Lord’s castle.”

Kaze expected the Lady to express her wishes through the closed door of the palanquin. Instead, the hinged door opened. One of the guards ran up with an oiled paper umbrella to keep stray drops off the Lady.

Kaze had his head bowed, looking at the earth before him. He didn’t immediately see the Lady, but he heard a soft, melodious voice saying, “That’s very kind of you, Captain. My party is soaked by the rain, and I think they’d like a chance to dry out before proceeding to the Lord’s castle.”

Kaze looked up at the speaker and his breath caught in his throat. Large brown eyes framed by expressive brows looked at him. Her face was serene, with high cheekbones and a small mouth. If she was discomforted by the heavy rain, she didn’t show it. Her gaze was steady and seemed to drink in tranquilly every detail of the scene before her.

Kaze tried to talk and found his voice catching. He cleared his throat and finally managed to say, “Of course, my Lady, your comfort and safety are my primary concerns.”

She laughed. It was the same tinkling laugh as at the waterfall, and Kaze was sure it was the girl, now grown into an incredibly beautiful woman. “I’m not discomforted,” she said. “Falling water never bothered me, although it might bother others. I simply suggested we stop at the teahouse so my escort can dry out. You and your men look soaked, too. I’m sure you’d all like to warm yourself by a nice
hi-bachi.”

Kaze hesitated a moment, not sure if her remark about falling water was directed at him. Could she have remembered and recognized him after all these years? If she did, she gave no further sign and simply closed the door of the palanquin without additional conversation.

Mounting his horse, Kaze led the procession to the teahouse, his mind racing.

The next day, Kaze safely brought the bride to the Lord’s castle, and within a week the Lord and Lady were married. If the Lady recognized him as the boy at Dragonfly Falls, she never mentioned it during their time together.

A few years later, Kaze won a fencing exhibition in front of the Taiko, Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself. The combatants used
bokken
, wooden practice swords, but every entrant made a maximum effort to win for the honor of their clan in front of the ruler of Japan. As a result, several injuries and one death occurred during the competition, because the carved oak swords could be as deadly as any made of steel.

Kaze made it to the finals of the competition, his heart secretly glad that his opponent in the final round would be his boyhood nemesis, Okubo. The latter was not Lord of his clan yet, although his father’s age made it a certainty that he would be shortly. Kaze had known Okubo since childhood, because he had spent time as a hostage with Kaze’s clan after Okubo’s father had lost a bid to conquer Kaze’s clan in a war. Okubo’s period as a hostage was intended to guarantee his father’s good behavior, lest he lose his son and heir.

This period as a hostage had planted a deep-seated enmity and rivalry toward Kaze’s clan in Okubo’s heart, and Kaze relished the chance to defeat Okubo in the final match of the tournament. Right before the match, Kaze was approached with inducements to lose the match to Okubo. Kaze was so outraged by this attempt to guarantee a win for Okubo that he didn’t just defeat Okubo, he destroyed him. Okubo now carried a limp in his left leg to remind him of that match and Kaze’s reaction to the attempt to bribe him.

As a reward, Kaze was given command of a key castle on the border of his Lord’s domain. It was an unusual honor for one so young, but it was an honor that evoked no jealousy or comment from elder members of the clan. Kaze’s performance before the tournament and the glory that his victory brought to the clan made the promotion seem just and proper.

Right before Kaze left to take command of his new castle, his wife went to pay a good-bye call to the Lady.

“She’s so nice and so generous,” Kaze’s wife said, returning from the courtesy visit.

“Why do you say that?” Kaze asked.

“Well, look what she gave me as a farewell gift,” his wife said. “I really didn’t want to take it, but she absolutely insisted. She said it was most appropriate for me.”

“What did she give you?” Kaze asked, puzzled.

“Why, this piece of jewelry.” Kaze’s wife pulled a hairpin from her kimono sleeve. It was a long brass pin, with a silver decoration adorning the head of the pin. The decoration was a silver dragonfly.

         
CHAPTER 6
 

A fluttering leaf.
The transient moments are
sad and beautiful
.

 

F
ailing water, in the form of rain, was also involved the last time Kaze saw the Lady alive. It was the day he pledged to the Lady that he would find her daughter and rescue her.

Memories of that time entered Kaze’s mind. He shook his head, as if sending the drops of water clinging to his hair and face flying would also cast away the bitter memories of the day the Lady died. Sometimes memory can be like a bronze razor, Kaze reflected, lacerating the soul and shredding the heart, cutting deeply into the core of who we are and what motivates us. Kaze squeezed his eyes shut to block out thoughts of the past.

He sighed as he realized that there was also falling water involved the time he had seen the Lady’s obake. That time the water was in the form of tears. The skin on his arms wrinkled into bumps and Kaze told himself it was simply a reaction to the cold rain and not to his encounter with a ghost on a mountain pathway—a ghost that had no face, but that he still knew to be the dead Lady.

N
ext to him, Hishigawa woke and immediately started his grumbling about how uncomfortable he was, how wet he was, and how cold he was. It seemed that the litany of complaints from the merchant
formed a kind of mantra, reminding Kaze of the miserable existence of man and how the petty complaints and suffering of one man could seem more important to that man than the anguish, pain, and death of others. There were three guards and four bandits lying dead where Kaze first met the merchant. They would have been happy for a chance to feel the discomfort of the rain.

“I think it’s letting up a little bit,” the merchant said abruptly.

Kaze just grunted. The merchant was right, it was letting up.

“Maybe by morning things will dry out enough for us to push this cart,” Kaze said. “Stop talking and try to sleep.” Then Kaze wrapped his kimono closer about him, closed his eyes, and also tried to sleep.

T
he next morning, Kaze awoke to the sound of the merchant snoring loudly. The rain had stopped during the night, but the earth was still wet and muddy. Kaze crawled out from under the cart without disturbing the merchant and walked into the woods.

The pine scent was crisp and vibrant, a tart, bracing smell that you could almost taste on your tongue. Kaze came to a stream swollen by the heavy rains and watched the different shades of silver blinking at him. He took off his mud-smeared kimono and rinsed it in the steam. Walking to a place where the water was eddying a bit slower near a curve in the streambed, he stepped into the water to wash the mud off himself.

The water was cold. It seemed even colder than the icy spray of Dragonfly Falls. He told himself to be strong and wondered if, at thirty-one, he was already starting to get soft. Still, age didn’t have much to do with toughness. The Sensei had been at least twice as old as Kaze was now, and he had been like a stone whose surface had been made smoother and harder by the passage of years. Although the body couldn’t help but age, it was the spirit that got old, buffeted by too much pain, too many bitter memories, and too many disappointments. Kaze took a scoop of cold water and washed his face.

Getting out of the stream and donning his wet kimono, Kaze walked until he found an open space. A large cryptomeria was growing
at the edge of the space, an infrequent procession of water drops dripping off a low limb. Kaze braced himself, his hand on his sword, and waited.

A tiny drop formed at the end of the limb, swelling until finally it released its bond with the branch and started falling to the ground. Kaze drew his katana and cut at the drop in one smooth motion. The polished blade made a flat arc, meeting the drop in midflight. The drop exploded into a constellation of minute stars that flew outward from the contact point of the sword and the water.

The borrowed sword had stuck slightly in the scabbard. Kaze made a note to use more force next time. He returned the sword to the scabbard and waited. When the next drop fell he repeated the act, cleanly meeting the drop before it hit the ground. He waited and did it again. And again.

Then he stopped and looked around the periphery of the space until his eyes finally settled on a young bush. He scrutinized the bush and picked off a tiny budding leaf, smaller than his thumbnail. He put his hand on the sword handle and threw the leaf in the air. The leaf caught a light breeze, and its irregular shape caused it to tumble about in the air, following an erratic path. Kaze drew his sword and sliced at the leaf.

He bent down and picked up the leaf, looking at it closely. He had missed it completely. He picked off a second leaf and threw that in the air. Once again he sliced at the leaf. Again he missed it. The normal swing of the katana was too long to catch the flitting leaf as it made its erratic way through the air. The dropping water was predictable, but a standard draw and swing on an erratically moving object was useless. Something like a small tumbling leaf required a different technique.

Kaze kept the sword in his hand and threw the leaf in the air. This time he used a sharp, flicking motion with his wrist instead of a normal cut. It was a motion that wouldn’t generate enough power to deliver a mortal blow to a man, but it allowed the tip of Kaze’s sword to move with blinding speed and catch the fluttering leaf.

This time when he picked up the leaf, he noticed he had sliced off a tiny section of it. He picked out other leaves and threw them in the air, repeating the process again and again and again until he was picking up two pieces of each leaf cut neatly in half. It was an unorthodox move with a sword, but Kaze practiced it as diligently as he practiced any move.

The purpose of practice, his Sensei would tell him, was to transcend technique and take his motions with the sword into the realm of expression and art.

By repeating the motions over and over again, you could reach a point where the mind and muscles no longer had to coordinate consciously. When that point was reached, the sword movement became a part of your body’s existence, like breathing or the beating of your heart—a natural movement of your body that required no thought to execute.

Kaze still strove to learn his art and to perfect it. But despite the fact that he had great skill, he always considered himself a pupil who had to strive to learn just one more technique or movement. In the hands of a master like the Sensei, the way of the sword was an art, but it was one that could have unfortunate consequences.

Kaze had thought that great good would come from his skill at one time, when he was much younger. But he understood the capriciousness of fate and that the movement of forces greater than one man often held the key to our lives. One swordsman, no matter how good, could not fight the changes transforming Japan.

K
aze came out of the woods and returned to the pushcart to find the merchant had found some dry wood and had a small fire going. On the fire was a black metal pot; in it was water boiling for tea.

“It’s probably best not to light a fire,” Kaze said as he walked up to the merchant.

“Where were you?” the merchant said quickly. “I was worried you might have left me.”

“No, I simply went into the woods.”

The merchant just grunted his understanding, thinking that Kaze was simply answering a call of nature.

“The bandits might see the smoke,” Kaze continued.

“I don’t care,” Hishigawa replied petulantly. “I have to get dried off and warmed up or else I’ll die.”

Kaze shrugged. “Unless we get some help,” he said, “we will not be able to push that cart through these muddy pathways.”

“Where can we get some help?” Hishigawa said.

“A pathway always goes somewhere,” Kaze answered. “You simply follow it until you come to a village or farmhouse. There, we might be able to recruit some help to allow us to get this pushcart from here to the barrier.”

“When do you think I should do that?” the merchant asked.

“Right now,” Kaze answered. “If you go to a village or farmhouse, you’ll probably find a hot breakfast.”

The merchant looked over at the pushcart. “But what about the cart?”

“I’ll stay here and watch it,” Kaze said.

“But…” The merchant let the word trail off.

Kaze smiled. “Don’t worry, I can’t push the cart by myself either. So your gold will be safe. If you can’t recruit some help, we are going to be here two or three days, until the roads dry up.”

Sighing, the merchant took one last, reluctant look at the water starting to boil in the kettle and said, “All right. I’ll go get some people to help us push the cart.”

He started off down the road in search of a farmhouse or village. As he left, Kaze looked at the cart. He stared at it for several minutes, thinking about the possibilities.

H
ishigawa was tired, stiff, and cold. All these things drove the fear from his heart and replaced it with anger. He was used to ronin doing as they were told, not giving orders. In fact, he was used to most people doing as they were told.

He was raised as the only child of a wealthy merchant family. First-born
sons of Japanese families were always special anyway, but being the only son of a rich household made him the object of constant attention and pampering.

His first nurse, Ando, was barely older than he, yet she insisted on carrying him about on her back, his legs around her waist and a wide piece of cloth strapping him in place. This continued until Hishigawa was almost as big as Ando, so Ando would stagger around with the burden, a burden she seemed to relish. Ando was still with him, and as a reward for her loyalty, Hishigawa had given her more responsibility than a servant and a woman usually had.

Hishigawa wished she was with him now, to tend to his comfort. Instead, he was being sent to scour the countryside for help while the strange ronin was supposed to be guarding his gold. Gold. Until he met Yuchan, his entire life was motivated by the need to acquire more and more wealth. Now his life had two driving objectives.

His father had given up the life of a samurai to enter commerce. Hishigawa still wore the swords of a samurai and claimed two names, maintaining the fiction that he was a samurai, but he had never received training in the use of swords and knew that technically he was not entitled to wear them. Still, the ability to wear the two swords was just one of the privileges that wealth brought, so he guarded his wealth closely, insisting on personal involvement when large amounts of it were at risk, such as during this transfer of gold from Kyoto.

His apprehension over what the ronin might be doing with that gold added quickness to his step. He ignored the aches that pushing the cart and a night in the rain had brought to him. Curse that ronin! Why couldn’t he have let them find a nice temple or farmhouse to spend the night in, away from the rain?

G
oro and Hanzo were arguing. That was the natural condition for the two men. They lived in the same small farmhouse and shared a farm that was currently too muddy to work, so instead of bickering in the fields, they bickered in the home.

“Those must have been soldiers,” Goro said.

“They didn’t look like soldiers. They looked like bandits,” Hanzo answered.

“What do bandits look like? You’ve never really seen a bandit because you have nothing worth stealing!”

“I have seen what soldiers look like, and they didn’t look like them. And, if I had a better partner in this farm, I’d have plenty worth stealing.”

“I’m the one that does all the work!”

“If you did all the work—”


Oi!
You! Is someone home in there?” Hearing the abrupt greeting “oi” rather than the polite “sumimasen,” both Goro and Hanzo froze. Despite their bluster, they had been scared by the group of armed men who had stopped at their hut the night before, searching for a party with a pushcart.

“Do you think they’re back?” Goro whispered, a quaver in his voice.

“I don’t know. I don’t recognize the voice,” Hanzo whispered back.

“What should we do?”

“I don’t know. Should we open the door?”

“I don’t know, either. If we don’t open the door, they can break it down.”

“I think we better open it.”

“Okay,” Goro said. He looked around and grabbed a rake leaning against the wall, holding it like a weapon. “You go ahead and open it.”

“I don’t want to open it!”

“We just said we should open it. If you—”

“Oi!” The voice was more insistent and angry. “I hear you whispering in there. Open the door!”

The two peasants looked at each other. Hanzo finally went to the door, removed the stick that functioned as a lock, and slid the wooden farmhouse door back. Standing before them was a potbellied middle-aged man, dressed like a merchant but wearing two swords. He was bedraggled and smeared with mud from head to foot. It spotted his hair, streaked his kimono, daubed his legs, and encrusted his
sandals. He looked like he was half clay and half flesh. His filthy appearance made a comic counterpoint to his bearing. He was standing with a hand on the hilt of his katana, his weight on one foot, staring down his nose at them like he was the greatest
daimyo
in the land. Relieved, the two peasants burst out in laughter.

H
ishigawa couldn’t understand what the two louts were laughing at and shouted “
Yakamashii!
Shut up!” at them. The two peasants sobered up at the command, and Hishigawa invited himself into the relative warmth of the crude farmhouse, demanding that they serve him breakfast.

“Please come in, Samurai-sama,” Goro said, bowing low. He went to the cook fire in the hut to stir the breakfast soup, where he was joined by Hanzo.

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