Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (7 page)

“Do you think we should have let him in?” Hanzo whispered.

“What choice do we have? He’s wearing the two swords.”

“Yes, but he’s covered in mud. He doesn’t look like any samurai I’ve ever seen. He looks more like a merchant. In fact, I’m not even sure he’s human. He might be a
kappa
. He’s covered with mud, like he just crawled out of a pond.” Kappa were creatures who lived under bridges and in ponds who drowned children.

“What are you whispering about?” Hishigawa shouted. “Where is my breakfast!”

“Coming, coming, Samurai-sama,” Goro said soothingly. Then, whispering to Hanzo, he said, “How can we tell if he’s human or kappa?”

“Kappa have little saucers of water in the top of their heads. They have to be near water or they grow weak, so they always carry water with them. If we knock him down so the water spills out, he’ll be helpless.”

“A saucer in his head?”

“Yes. Made of flesh.”

“I’ll check,” Goro said.

He took the bowl of
miso
soup and walked over to Hishigawa.
Hishigawa reached up for the bowl, but Goro, intent on peering at the top of Hishigawa’s head, kept moving the bowl as Hishigawa reached for it. The merchant made a couple of ineffective grabs for the soup bowl, but Goro unintentionally moved it each time as he shuffled to the side to get a better view, just to make sure a fleshy saucer of water wasn’t hidden in the man’s thinning hair.

Finally, in exasperation, Hishigawa shouted, “What is wrong with you?”

Snapping to attention, Goro said, “Oh, nothing, nothing, Samurai-sama.
Gomen nasai
, excuse me. Here is the breakfast soup. It is humble, but please enjoy it.” He gave the bowl to Hishigawa and scurried back to the fire and Hanzo.

“Well?”

“He’s going bald, but I didn’t see any saucer on his head. He doesn’t have lice,” Goro added helpfully.

Hishigawa drained the soup and held out the bowl for another helping. Goro gave it to him, scraping the bottom of the pot in the process. When he had finished the second bowl, Hishigawa asked, “Is there a village near here?”

“About two ri away, Samurai-sama.”

Hishigawa moaned. That was too far to walk. “Are there porters or samurai at the village?”

“No, Samurai-sama. It’s just a small village. Nothing but poor farmers.”

Hishigawa sighed. “I have need of porters and fighting men.” He looked the two scrawny peasants over and decided they were better than nothing. “How about you two? Do you want to earn some money? I’ll give you four coppers to go to Kamakura.”

“Kamakura?”

“Yes. I have a pushcart that I need moved to Kamakura. With this mud, I need help.”

The mention of a pushcart raised alarm bells in the two peasants. The men who came by the night before were searching for a party with a pushcart.

“But we have our farm to tend. In a few days the fields will be dry enough for us to work them.”

“All right, six coppers,” Hishigawa said.

Normally six coppers would have gotten their cooperation, but the memory of the men made the peasants hesitate. “But all the way to Kamakura! We’ve never been to Kamakura,” Hanzo said.

Hishigawa glowered at the peasants. Peasants were shrewd, but these two wouldn’t know the value of making a dangerous journey. “Ten coppers, my final offer,” Hishigawa said sternly.

“I’ll take it,” Goro said hastily.

“That’s for both of you,” Hishigawa added.

“What about it, Hanzo? Let’s go to Kamakura. When we get there, we’ll have money to spend,” Goro said.

Hanzo hesitated a second, still not sure that the gruff, mud-covered man was completely human, but the wheedling of his friend finally got him to agree. The thoughts of the searching men were driven from his mind by the thought of more money than their little farm could earn in a year.

         
CHAPTER 7
 

Two chickens on a
branch. The clucking sounds of
meaningless discourse
.

 

A
few hours later, Kaze saw the merchant returning with two other figures. Kaze was in the midst of packing mud into the end of one of the large bamboo poles that formed the rails of the cart. The bamboo was almost as thick around as a man’s arm, and it took several scoops of mud to block off the end. Then Kaze bent down and washed his hands in a puddle of rainwater.

Kaze’s brows furrowed into a V at the sight of the merchant’s recruits. Both were short and skinny. That wasn’t necessarily a sign of a lack of strength for pushing the cart, because peasants were notoriously wiry and full of stamina. What caused Kaze to frown was that both seemed to be engaged in some kind of dispute, gesturing wildly and shaking their fists at each other.

Hishigawa, leading the quarreling pair, had a grim look to his face, his jaw set and a clear look of displeasure painted across his visage. As the trio approached, Kaze was able to pick up the substance of the argument.

“We should split it evenly,” one of the peasants said. He was wearing a filthy gray kimono.

“No, I am the one who agreed to this job, then I asked you. Therefore, you are working for me. I should have two coins for every one
you get. In fact, you should call me Boss Goro for the rest of the journey!” He was wearing a pair of traveling pants and a jacket. His bald pate was topped by a headband of twisted cloth.

“Ridiculous!”

“It’s ridiculous that you think it’s ridiculous!”

“Yes? Well, it’s ridiculous that you think my saying it’s ridiculous is ridiculous!”

Goro had his mouth working like a
fugu
, a blowfish, as he sorted through his companion’s retort, trying to understand what his response should be. He gave up and hit Hanzo on the forehead with an open hand. The blow made a sharp slapping sound.


Itai!
Ouch! What gives you the right to hit me like that?”

“Because I’m the boss.”

“You’re not the boss! What makes you the boss?”

“I told you it was my idea to take this job.”

“You don’t speak for me. When you asked me, I was the one who said I would take the job.”

“See! See! You admit I asked you. That makes me the boss.”

“It doesn’t.”

“It does!”

“Ridiculous!”

“Ridiculous yourself.”

Slap.

“I said that hurts! You better stop that before I get mad and hurt you, too. But I won’t just give you a slap on the head. I’ll smash you!” Hanzo shook a fist at Goro.

Slap.

“Oh! Now you’ve really hurt me!” Tears formed in Hanzo’s eyes. He grabbed his forehead and moaned.

“There, there. I didn’t mean to really hurt you. I see I’ve gone too far. We’ll split the money evenly. I promise you. You don’t have to call me Boss.” Then, in a low mutter, he said, “But I’m still the boss!”

Kaze cocked his head to one side and looked at Hishigawa. “This is the best you could do?” he asked dryly.

“Of course it’s the best I could do,” Hishigawa said with a tight jaw. “They’ve been arguing like this ever since we left their farmhouse. They won’t stop!”

“What are you called?” Kaze asked the peasants.

The two were a bit surprised that a samurai would bother to ask their names.

“I’m Goro,” the man with the headband said.

“I’m Hanzo,” said the one in the filthy gray kimono.

“What were you told about what we want you to do?”

Goro pointed to Hishigawa. “He promised us ten coppers if we’d help him push a cart to Kamakura.”

“You’ll get gold,” Kaze said.

“Gold!”

“What are you promising?” Hishigawa said.

“Now listen carefully,” Kaze said to the peasants. “There will be danger.”

“Why are you telling them—”

Kaze looked at Hishigawa, silencing the angry merchant. “I’m telling them because they should know. Their lives will be in danger, as ours have been.”

Returning his attention to the peasants, he said, “That chest tied to the pushcart has gold in it. There are men who want that gold. Perhaps by now there are many men. They’ve already killed the three guards who were assigned to protect that gold, and they will kill us, if they can. We must get that cart to the barrier, where additional guards can be hired to protect us for the rest of the journey to Kamakura. Until then, we will be in great danger. Do you understand that?”

As Kaze spoke, the eyes of the two peasants grew in size. They looked at each other, then at Kaze, and said, “Hai! Yes!”

“And do you still want to help?”

Once again the two peasants looked at each other, then at Kaze. But this time they looked at each other a second time before answering.

“What do you think, Hanzo?”

“What do you think?”

“I think these men must be the ones who those other men were looking for. Still, this samurai has been honest with us, and he’s promised us gold. I think we should help.”

“What other men?” Kaze asked.

“Last night a group of men came by our hut, looking for a party with a pushcart. I suppose that’s you.”

“How many men?”

“I don’t know. A lot.”

“More than four?”

“Yes, quite a few more than four.”

“Yes, they are looking for us,” Kaze said. “They want that gold. We still need your help, and there might be the chance that those men will find us. Will you still help us?”

Goro looked at Kaze. “We’re not fighters,” he said.

Kaze smiled. “I don’t expect you to be. We just need men who will push the cart. If there’s any fighting to be done, I’ll handle it.”

There was a moment’s hesitation as the two peasants looked at each other.

“Gold for us?” Hanzo asked.

“Gold,” Kaze confirmed.

“Then we’ll do it.”

“Good! There’s no better time than now to start.
Yosh!
Let’s go! Give us a hand getting the cart back on the road.”

G
oro and Hanzo took a position behind the cart to push it, and Kaze took one of the bamboo rails of the cart, with Hishigawa on the other. As they got the cart back on the road, Hishigawa groaned, “It seems even heavier than yesterday.”

“It’s the mud slowing us down, and you’re tired from yesterday,” Kaze said.

Hishigawa grunted a reply and the four men moved the cart down the road. Unlike Hishigawa and Kaze, Goro and Hanzo were not silent. They bickered constantly as they pushed. Kaze noticed that they pushed much better when they were arguing with each other, so
he let them. Hishigawa tried to silence them a couple of times, and his harsh words and glowering gaze did silence them for a moment, but within minutes they would find some new cause of dispute between them and the arguments would start again.

Late in the morning they came to a fork in the road, with paths traveling both left and right.

“What path do we take?” Kaze asked.

“We take the left path,” Hanzo replied.

“No, we should take the right path,” Goro said.

“The left path is flat and the shortest way to the barrier.”

“We know bandits are looking for the cart. They’ll surely be waiting along the left path.”

“But the right path is much longer. You have to circle the entire mountain before you get to the barrier. Along the left path, we’d be at the barrier late today or early tomorrow. The right path will be at least another day of hard travel.”

“But—”

“Yakamashii! Shut up!” Hishigawa screamed. “You two bicker like an old married couple. It is intolerable!”

“Perhaps intolerable, but in this case interesting,” Kaze said. “We have a choice to make.”

“The faster path,” Hishigawa said. “The faster we get to the barrier, the faster we will all be safe, along with my gold.”

“All right,” Kaze said, “the left path. But we should remain alert, because if the bandits know anything about the paths in this district, they will surely set an ambush before we get to the barrier.”

The men started moving the cart down the left branch of the trail, and within minutes Hanzo and Goro were arguing about some past dispute. Kaze sighed but continued pulling on the cart, while Hishigawa ground his teeth.

For most of their journey, the path went between wooded patches punctuated by open meadows. The tree branches converged over the path, providing the illusion of shelter and safety and highlighting how exposed the group was in the open areas. As they came to each
meadow, Kaze stopped the cart and advanced to reconnoiter the territory. Hishigawa protested the first stop, calling it an unnecessary delay, but Kaze’s look was enough to silence him.

After several hours the path left the woods, went down a long slope, and passed into a marshy valley filled with tall reeds. At the fringe of the remaining woods, Kaze stopped the cart and told the three to wait. Hishigawa opened his mouth as if to protest again but closed it without voicing his frustration over the delays.

Kaze started down into the valley. Soon the reeds were above his head. It was the perfect place for an ambush, because the reeds could conceal any number of men. He didn’t like the looks of this part of the journey and returned to the edge of the woods and the pushcart.

“Well?” Hishigawa demanded. “Can we finally continue our journey? We could have been at the barrier by now if it weren’t for these constant delays.”

“I don’t like the feel of what’s ahead.”

“Feel? Feel? That’s no reason to stop us!”

Kaze made no response. Instead he stood looking at the valley, searching for some clue of what was ahead. The valley stretched before him like a sea of green and brown. In a slight breeze, the reed stalks swayed with the grace of a
Noh
performer. The brown heads of the reeds rippled as the wind caressed them, revealing the green stalks below. A soft rustling sound emerged from the waving sea of stalks. At the end of the valley, Kaze saw a flight of birds ascend into the blue sky, startled by something. In a few seconds, Kaze saw another group of birds leaving the safety of the reeds, just a short distance from the first.

“There are men in there,” Kaze said.

“Where?” Hishigawa asked.

“Moving. Watch the far side of the valley.”

As he talked, a third group of birds flew up from the reeds.

“There,” he said.

“I don’t see any men,” Hishigawa said.

“Neither do I,” Goro said.

“Me, neither,” Hanzo echoed.

“You don’t see the wind, but you can see its results on the reeds. You can’t see the men, but you can see the results of their progress through the reed field. When Minamoto Yoshiie led an expedition against Kiyohara Takehira, he was able to detect an ambush from geese taking flight from reeds, disturbed by men getting into position. Here three groups of birds have also escaped from the reeds, fleeing the approach of men.”

“They could be fleeing the approach of a badger or
tanuki
,” Hishigawa said.

“Are you willing to take that chance?” Before Hishigawa could answer, Kaze added, “If you die, you will not see your wife, Yuchan, again.”

That seemed to convince Hishigawa. “What should we do?” he asked.

“We don’t know how many men are there, so there may be too many to fight. Also, it’s likely they haven’t seen us yet because they’re among the reeds, so their view is blocked. I think we should return to the fork in the road and take the mountain path.”

“But it will take hours to get back to that path, and we won’t reach the barrier today,” Hishigawa protested.

“Is your life worth a few hours of travel?”

Hishigawa sighed. “All right.”

“When we go back, try to keep the cart in the same ruts. Perhaps we can fool them if they get tired of hiding in the reeds and come down this path looking for us.”

Kaze went into the bushes and cut a branch from a bush and a stave from a small sapling. When he returned to the road, the three men had turned the cart around and were already moving it down the path, following Kaze’s instructions to try to keep the cart in the same ruts.

Kaze used the branch to smooth out the soft mud of the path, erasing the evidence of the cart having been turned around. Then he used the sapling as a staff, gouging out false ruts in the dirt road to make it
look as if the cart had been taken off the road and into the woods. This was the same technique Kaze had used to fool the bandit who had been following them earlier, making it look as if the cart had gone off the path and miraculously been able to pass through a tree. Kaze continued making the false ruts into the woods. When he reached ground rocky enough to stop the creation of the ruts, he threw the staff away. Now it would look as if the cart had been taken off the road again.

C
ome on, fools,” Hishigawa said.

Hanzo stopped pushing and motioned to Goro to do the same.

“You shouldn’t call us fools,” he protested.

“What are you talking about?” Hishigawa snapped.

“I think you’re really a merchant, not a samurai. You don’t act like that other samurai, Matsuyama-san. If you’re not a samurai, you shouldn’t be calling us such rude things.” By rights, peasants actually ranked higher on the social scale than merchants, right under nobles and samurai.

“My family is a samurai family,” Hishigawa said.

“But you’re not a samurai, are you? You’ve given it up to become a merchant. Isn’t that true?”

“Why, you little—”

“You really should control your temper,” a voice said.

Hishigawa, Hanzo, and Goro looked about them.

“Up here.”

They looked up and saw Kaze sitting on the branch of a tree above their heads. He was balanced in the lotus position, completely at ease at a height twice that of a man. He had circled ahead of them and had been waiting.

“We need the help and hard work of Hanzo and Goro,” Kaze said reasonably. “It’s not much to show politeness. When dealing with customers, you must do it all the time, even when you don’t feel like doing it.”

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