Read Jade Palace Vendetta Online

Authors: Dale Furutani

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

Jade Palace Vendetta (9 page)

         
CHAPTER 9
 

Part the curtain and
disclose the trick. The magic
of revelation
.

 

I
t’s the barrier!” Hanzo cried out.

For centuries Japanese roads had barriers across them. They acted as checkpoints, taxing stations, and helped to regulate commerce. Since the Tokugawa victory at Sekigahara, the Tokugawa forces had manned the barriers on the Tokaido Road and other major highways. As a result, Kaze usually cut across country to avoid the barriers. Now he had no choice but to go through the barrier. He wondered if one of the warriors at the barrier would recognize him from the days when he fought against the Tokugawas.

The barrier was a sturdy fence of large bamboo that stretched for a long distance on both sides of the road. In the middle of the barrier, straddling the road, was a pair of large bamboo gates. Next to the gate were a guard barracks, an area for doing business, a teahouse, stands selling refreshments, and a stable where horses were kept for the Tokugawa messenger service. The messenger service used relays of horses and riders to speed messages from Edo to all points on the main island of Honshu.

As they approached the barrier, Kaze said to the disconsolate Hishigawa, “You should report the bandits. Then we should get an
armed escort that will take us to Kamakura. You can continue on to Edo later.”

Hishigawa looked at Kaze, his eyes flashing with anger, “What for? You threw the gold off the cart and down to the river below! By now the bandits would have retrieved it. All is lost.”

Kaze sighed. “Stop the cart for a few moments,” he said to Goro and Hanzo. The two peasants stopped pushing, glad to have a short breather while the samurai and the merchant seemed to be settling something. For once, others were fighting instead of them.

“What good is getting guards now?” Hishigawa screamed, his fury rising.

Kaze stopped for a minute and looked at the merchant. Seeing the steady set of Kaze’s eyes, the merchant stifled his anger. When the merchant had himself under control, Kaze said, “Good. Now watch.”

He pulled the dead man’s sword from his scabbard in a smooth fluid motion. Without using his full force, he brought the blade down on the edge of the large bamboo rail that made up the framework of the cart. The blade cut into the bamboo, knocking out the mud plug that filled the end of the hollow shaft.

Hishigawa, Hanzo, and Goro watched Kaze’s actions with puzzled looks on their faces, uncertain as to what the samurai was doing. Kaze took the blade of his sword and twisted it, splitting the bamboo and opening a gap to reveal what was inside.

“There’s your gold,” Kaze said.

Hishigawa walked to the split rail of the cart and looked into the gap. There, at the core of the bamboo, was a long plug of mud holding together large clumps of oblong
oban
gold coins.

“What?” Hishigawa asked, stunned.

“There’s your gold,” Kaze repeated.

“How?” Hishigawa said, shaking his head in befuddlement.

“When you went to get Goro and Hanzo, I opened your strongbox. Then I cored out this bamboo and dropped the gold coins from the strongbox down the bamboo. I used your pot for tea water to pour
mud into the shaft so the coins wouldn’t move around or make noise. Most of your gold is in this shaft, but the other shaft also has some. I put rocks in the strongbox so it would be heavy and tied it up again.”

Hishigawa fell to his knees and reached up with a trembling hand to touch the bamboo shaft of the cart.

“It’s all there?” he asked in wonder.

“Yes.”

“My gold.”

“I thought it would be a shame to lose the gold, but, if necessary, I knew it would be so much easier to give the bandits the strongbox. The fact that I was able to give them the strongbox in a way that caused them great effort to retrieve it was just a gift from the Gods.”

“My gold,” Hishigawa repeated, still stunned by the sudden reversal of fortunes.

“Come on,” Kaze said, “let’s get down to the barrier.”

A
s Hishigawa went into the guardhouse to report the bandits and arrange for an armed escort into Kamakura, Kaze took Goro and Hanzo to one of the nearby stands that served refreshments. These were simple structures made of bamboo lashed together into a crude framework, with a rough thatched roof and wooden benches that served as both seats and table for weary travelers. In one corner of this stand was a stove made of mud, where tea water was heated and food was cooked.

As he entered the stand, Kaze asked the proprietor, a wizened man with a face like old leather from working outdoors in the summer sun and winter cold, if he had seen a trio of travelers consisting of an old woman, a youth, and an old, thin servant.

“An obaasan, a grandmother, with a headband? On the headband the kanji for ‘revenge’?” the old man said.

“The same!”

“Yes. They went through here a few days ago. That was one tough old granny!” The man cackled. “I thought she was going to run me through with that spear she carries when I wouldn’t give her a discount.
Argued with me for the longest time, then finally took her business next door. Heard her arguing over there, too. She was something.”

Having been so lucky, Kaze took a chance. “Is there a nine-year-old girl around here? She would have come within the past two years, possibly sold as a servant.”

The old man scratched his head. “No, sorry, Samurai, there’s nobody like that in these parts.”

Hiding his disappointment, Kaze thanked the old man for the information, sat on a bench, and ordered hot tea and roasted gingko nuts on tiny bamboo skewers. Goro and Hanzo, not used to partaking of the amenities of the world, sat together on a bench. They were curious about Kaze’s inquiries but so uncomfortable about being in the snack stand that they remained silent. The meager earnings from their farm made spending money on tea and service an unthinkable luxury.

Kaze was handed a brown earthenware cup, and then a woman with a coarse red face came by with a large copper teakettle that she used to fill it with steaming green tea. She went to serve Goro and Hanzo as Kaze lifted the cup to his face, content to drink the hot bitter liquid. He was happy he was going in the right direction to track down the trio and had decided to let his karma take him where it willed, even if it meant being recognized by the Tokugawa guards at the barrier. His mind was clear and he was unafraid.

He was in the midst of taking a second drink when he felt two men behind him. He put the cup down, stood, and turned before the men could get within a sword’s length of him.

“It’s the man who’s kind to flies,” one of the men said.

Kaze smiled. They were the two drunken samurai from the tea-house a few days before.

Since the barrier acted as a choke point for commerce, Kaze was not surprised to see fellow travelers he had met before. The chances were high that people would meet and sometimes meet again while traveling the Tokaido. Kaze relaxed his guard slightly, reaching
down to pick up his teacup again. He gave a brief nod to the two samurai.

“Did you really believe that you could cut a fly?” one of the two samurai said rudely, not addressing Kaze properly or introducing himself.

Kaze cocked his head to one side.

“Cutting a fly with a sword, it really can’t be done,” his companion said.

Kaze put down his teacup. He looked about him and saw several flies buzzing lazily near the refreshment stand. Then he looked at the two samurai and again back at the flies. He was tempted but heard the voice of his Sensei.
When you play with fools, you act like a fool. When you act like a fool, you are one
.

Calling attention to oneself was never good. Doing it in this circumstance, while at a barrier checkpoint with Tokugawa guards, was especially foolish. Kaze picked up his cup of tea and smiled at the samurai, just as he would at a simpleminded child. “You might be right,” he said.

K
amakura is in such a beautiful setting that it surely must be loved by the Gods, Kaze thought. This love manifests itself in the fact that many Gods, spirits, and holy people have touched various spots there, dotting its hills with countless temples, nunneries, and sacred places.

Kamakura is tucked into a deep green fold in the steep hills that ring the clear waters of Sagami Bay. It is reachable by a road that branches off the Tokaido. The Tokaido Road continued to Edo, but Kaze was pleased to be able to avoid the new capital of Japan, the stronghold of his enemies, the Tokugawas.

This was the second time Kaze had visited Kamakura. The first time was when he was eleven, when he had come to the city with his Sensei. Even when Kaze was eleven, he had a sense of
furyu
, that aesthetic and religious love of nature that samurai strove to develop lest they be considered barbaric and uncultured.

As he walked through the narrow mountain pass that opened the way to Kamakura and caught sight of the city, Kaze recalled the first time he had seen it. That time and this time, his reaction was exactly the same. His breath caught in his throat and he paused to drink in the vista.

The city spread across the narrow valley below, with the blue sea to the south and the steep hills to the north. Fuji-san could be seen in the distance beyond the hills, its majestic, snow-covered slopes dominating the horizon. With the steep hills and narrow passes leading to the city, Kaze immediately saw the military possibilities of the location as well as its beauty and understood why it had once been a military stronghold. Nitta Yoshisada had conquered Kamakura centuries before, but it had required intervention by the Gods.

The central part of Kamakura was laid out like a grid, in the Chinese style. Another former capital, Kyoto, was also laid out in such a grid. The rigid sense of orderliness imposed by a grid almost offended Kaze’s Japanese sense of geometry, which liked some small degree of variation, much like the variations found in nature. Unlike that of Kyoto, the grid portion of Kamakura was relatively compact. It was organized along a main central avenue,
Wakamiya Oji
. At the head of this avenue, high on a hill, was the Tsurugaoka Shrine.

The Tsurugaoka Shrine was devoted to Hachiman, the God of War. It was the creation of the Minamotos, who ruled Japan briefly from Kamakura almost four hundred years before Kaze’s time, adopting the fiction that the palaces and villas found on the beautiful rolling hills were like a military camp. They called their government a
bakufu
(“government of the tent”), as if this name would indicate that they had not strayed far from their military roots. One of their number, Yoritomo, became the first Minamoto Shogun, the “barbarian-conquering general.”

Once away from the central grid, the streets and paths of Kamakura took a more Japanese twist, following the contours of the land and snaking about the countryside. Tall trees grew up and down the hillsides and blue and gray tile roofs dotted the landscape. Kaze
knew from his previous trip that after a rain some of these roofs would capture the image of Fuji-san, a picture of glory reflected in a humble roof.

The sound of a temple bell filled the air, and Kaze let the deep, rolling sound of the bronze
kane
wash over him. Temples were everywhere in Kamakura, as well as sites important to Zen, Nichiren, and most other sects of Buddhism. Kaze watched the procession of hired samurai, Hishigawa, Goro, Hanzo, and the gold-filled pushcart pass before him and start down a side path, apparently to Hishigawa’s home. Hishigawa had hired ten samurai at the barrier, and the trip from there to Kamakura had been made without incident.

Kaze thought briefly of simply continuing into town, but he was still a bit curious about the rich merchant and decided to go to his house to see what would develop. As he started off to catch up with Hishigawa’s party, he noticed that Hishigawa seemed to be increasing his speed, until he was leading the procession.

         
CHAPTER 10
 

The road can be a
prelude to the gates of hell.
Home is a heaven
.

 

H
ishigawa walked along the familiar road to his villa. He often went down this road, either on foot or riding in a palanquin, so he knew each of the bends in the road and all of the trees growing alongside it. As he drew near to his home, his heart quickened. Yuchan. Yuchan. Yuchan. The name of his wife was like a mantra, driving him to see her. He forgot about the hardship and danger of the past few days and his mind became focused on one thing and one thing only: Yuchan. His steps quickened and it was as if he drew increasing strength from his growing proximity to her.

He didn’t see the strange ronin stop at the top of the hill to look down on Kamakura. He didn’t notice the surprised looks on the faces of the samurai escort he had hired as his quickening pace allowed him to take the lead of the group and eventually to start to pull ahead of them. The escorts looked at each other, unsure whether they should keep up with the man who was paying them or stay with the pushcart that seemed so important to him. The pushcart, which had its rails covered with fresh mud by the time the escort samurai saw it, seemed perfectly ordinary to them, but the merchant had made a great fuss about them guarding it.

Even before they reached Kamakura, Kaze had noticed a strange
transformation in Hishigawa. After they reached the barrier, Hishigawa had seemed to grow in confidence and stature. A strange metamorphosis had started to occur, made all the stranger by its quick unfolding.

Hishigawa was no longer a weak and bent merchant cowering from bandits along the road. His spine straightened, his step lengthened, and his face slowly took on haughty lines, as if he was not some humble merchant but, in fact, some noble or high official. His assertiveness and power grew with each step toward his home.

Kaze had often seen men adopt the surroundings they found themselves in, especially in the merchant class. One moment they would appear weak and obsequious, fawning over a rich customer. Other times they’d be hard and cruel, punishing some miscreant clerk or an unfortunate servant who might have drawn their ire. Every creature feels more secure in its own den or home, but to Kaze, who had no home, it was interesting to watch how this merchant reacted as their journey neared an end.

Kaze wondered if Hishigawa was drawing his strength simply because they were near his space of power or because he was nearing his wife, for whom Hishigawa held an obvious affection.

The road they were on soon led to a gentle valley. There, in the valley, was a large villa surrounded by a high, whitewashed wall. Kaze looked at the villa in surprise, wondering how much wealth the merchant had managed to acquire to be able to afford a house as large and grand as any wellborn noble’s.

In the distance, Kaze could see a guard lounging near the front gate, something unusual for a merchant’s house. Upon seeing Hishigawa, the guard snapped to attention and called out to the house. Kaze saw several servants rushing out upon the guard’s cry. They stood in a line as Hishigawa made his way through the front gate and into the compound. Then they waited for the rest of the party to arrive.

Hishigawa had rushed so far ahead that it was several minutes before Kaze arrived with the pushcart and the rest of the party. Three
women and the gate guard were still standing in line when they arrived. Two of the women were pretty young maids, looking at the ground as was proper when guests arrived, but the third was a sturdy, middle-aged woman in a gray kimono. She was watching the approaching party with hard eyes.

“I am Ando,” the woman said, addressing herself to the lead samurai in the group. “I am the Master’s head of household.”

This declaration was a surprise to Kaze. Normally Hishigawa’s mother would be the head of household and, if she were gone, then Hishigawa’s wife would serve this function. Kaze didn’t know Ando’s relationship to Hishigawa, but her position was obviously unusual.

The samurai Ando had addressed looked to Kaze, and Ando realized she had addressed the wrong man. Smoothly covering up her mistake, she gave a low bow and turned to Kaze. “Welcome to my Master’s home,” she said.

“I am Matsuyama Kaze,” he replied. “I accompanied your Master for part of the journey from Kyoto to here.”

Ando bowed again. “Thank you for bringing my Master home safely. If you’ll excuse him, he will be with you shortly. It is my Master’s custom to always visit his wife immediately upon returning from a trip.”

Kaze nodded. He felt his understanding of Hishigawa’s character unfolding the way a lotus unfolds in the cool of the evening. It was hard to picture a colorless merchant being infused with such passion for a new bride, but the evidence was before him, in Hishigawa’s actions.

A man could have a passion for a fine blade or a beautiful horse or even for some aesthetic thing like the tea ceremony and display it openly. But openly displaying such passion for one’s wife was unprecedented in Kaze’s experience. One could have passion for another being, but it was to be held close to your heart, not flaunted before strangers.

“Please come in and let us serve you some refreshments. You must be fatigued after such a long journey.” Ando’s words were proper and
gracious, but her manner was not. Her shoulders were tense and her hands were clenched. She looked at Kaze with small eyes that reminded him of a ferret scanning for prey. It was plain that she was annoyed to have an unexpected guest, especially a ronin.

Ando turned to one of the maids, and Kaze saw the young girl flinch, as if she expected to be struck. “Hurry! Get some tea and something to eat for the samurai while they wait for the Master.”

The girl rushed off, and a bowing Ando motioned for the group to enter Hishigawa’s estate.

When Kaze walked through the gate, the household staff took over the gold cart, leading the cart, Goro, and Hanzo to the side of the villa. “Please make sure the two peasants get refreshments, too,” Kaze said to Ando. He could see the woman tighten her jaw again, and Kaze realized that the Hishigawa house was not one that normally gave peasants hospitality, but Ando said, “Of course, Samurai-san.”

The courtyard between the gate and the front of Hishigawa’s mansion was filled with white sand. Strips of wood outlined rectangles in the sand; the rectangles were filled with small stones, forming a walk-way leading from the gate to the entrance. As the men walked along the path, the stones made a pleasant crunching sound under their feet.

“Your Master’s love for his wife is unusually strong,” Kaze observed.

Ando thought about this remark and pondered her response. Her family had served the Hishigawas for three generations, going back to the time when the Hishigawas were samurai. Hishigawa’s father had given up that position to follow the way of the merchant, abandoning the path of honor for the path of gold. This took the House of Hishigawa and tumbled it, in the eyes of his fellow samurai, from a high position in society to one of the lowest. Despite this change in position, Ando’s family had remained loyal to the Hishigawas. Although this ronin seemed to have been of service, she was unwilling to provide details about her Master’s life and passions. So she said blandly, “My Lord loves his wife very much. Would you like a bath, Samurai-san?
My Master may be a while before he can attend to more business.”

The change in subject was a clear signal that Kaze had veered onto a topic the woman was unwilling to expand on. Acting as if he didn’t notice this signal, Kaze simply said, “Of course. A bath would be most welcome.”

The samurai guards were left in a room near the entryway while Kaze was taken into the cool darkness of the house. The paper walls filtered the light, producing serenity and a feeling of coolness even when the weather was hot.

As Kaze penetrated the depths of the house, additional layers of paper filtering made the light darker and darker. Almost all large Japanese houses shared this characteristic. For that reason, decorative objects, such as the designs on the tops of boxes, were often done in mother-of-pearl, silver, and gold. Sometimes these materials formed a design that looked garish in the sunlight, but it was absolutely perfect in the twilight that pervaded the depths of a Japanese home.

To air out the house and provide light, large panels or removable screens simply slid apart, eliminating the barriers between the inside and the outside. Each room in the house was made to a multiple of a standard-size rectangular tatami mat, the size of the rooms being expressed in terms of the number of tatami mats it would take to cover the floor.

Kaze was led to the back of the house, to the bathhouse, where a large wooden
ofuro
tub was. As he walked to the bathhouse, he noticed two plastered structures in the back of the house. These were the treasure-houses, where things of value were kept safely away from the threat of fire that hung over every Japanese wood and paper house. This was something expected, especially for the house of a merchant, but he also saw something that surprised him.

The back of the estate was much more sizable than he would have thought. He was learning that Hishigawa’s ability to buy material goods was probably on a par with a minor lord rather than a merchant. In this backyard was a small lake and in the center of the lake
was an island. On the island was a sizable palace with a green tile roof. The palace was so large that a midlevel samurai would have been happy to have it as his residence. A Chinese-style arched drum bridge connected the island to the rest of the estate. The bridge was in the shape of a perfect half circle, with stairs going up the steep sides of the bridge and an arched wooden causeway spanning the water. A railing lacquered red in the Chinese style added color to the bridge. A guard was standing on the island side.

“What is that?” Kaze asked Ando.

“That’s the Jade Palace,” Ando said, “the home of my master’s wife.”

It was not uncommon for husbands and wives to have separate quarters in the main house. It was less common for a wife to have her own palace to live in.

Kaze said nothing but noted that in some ways Hishigawa’s wife seemed to have a status unlike any wife that Kaze had yet met. She was treated more like the Empress, who had her own wing in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

At the bath Kaze relaxed in the steaming hot water. Before he had entered, a pretty, young serving girl scrubbed the dirt off him. Kaze noted that almost all of the female servants he had seen in the house, except Ando, were young and pretty. This was another unusual aspect of Hishigawa’s most unusual household. In most households, there was a mixture of servants, with a range of ages and appearances.

“Have you been in Hishigawa’s household long?” Kaze asked the girl tending the fire that heated the bathwater.

“No, Samurai-san.”

“How did you come to be in service at Hishigawa-san’s house?”

There was a pause. “My parents sold me into the service of this family,” the girl finally said.

This statement seemed to cause the girl so much pain that Kaze didn’t pursue it. Instead he submerged himself in the hot water, letting the tiredness of the journey seep into the surrounding heat.
When Kaze had refreshed himself and put on a clean kimono lent to him by Ando, he was called in to meet with Hishigawa.

Kaze walked into the reception room of Hishigawa’s house. It was a large room measuring eighteen mats, similar to the kind of reception room found in the palaces and manors of nobles.

Hishigawa sat at the back of the room on a raised dais. Behind him was a large screen painted on four panels. The picture was of herons stepping their way into an iris pond, all on a gilt background. It was obviously expensive, but Kaze judged it vulgar. It was the kind of art done for newly rich merchants who had not yet developed an eye for the use of color and the mastery of the brush that marked a true artist.

Flanking Hishigawa were two rows of retainers, facing inward, six in each row. Eleven of these retainers were men; Kaze was surprised to note that Ando was the twelfth. Sitting between the rows were the samurai hired at the barrier. The arrangement was impressive and confirmed Hishigawa’s true wealth.

Hishigawa was dressed in a brown kimono with a white bamboo pattern. He sat easily, a man comfortable and assured in familiar surroundings. His elbow rested on a lacquered armrest that sat on the floor like a small piece of furniture. With a practiced eye, Kaze quickly looked over the men in the room. Most were of no consequence, but his eyes lingered on one man.

He was tall and thin, with the shaved pate of a samurai. He sat comfortably, with his hands on his knees. His two swords were impeccably placed, and he was looking back at Kaze with the same studied gaze that Kaze was using on him. Just as two creatures of the same species will always recognize each other, these two men knew from one another’s bearing, sharp eye, and stance that each was a master swordsman.

Kaze approached Hishigawa and sat down by the barrier samurai, giving Hishigawa a shallow bow. A small cloud passed over Hishigawa’s face. It was obvious that he was not satisfied with the depth of the bow. In the comfort of his own house, he was transformed from
the pleading merchant Kaze had found on the Tokaido Road to an undeclared noble holding court. Kaze found it interesting that a merchant should be taking on airs simply because he was wealthy.

“This is the samurai I told you about,” Hishigawa said to the assembled group of retainers. He pointed with his chin at Kaze. “This man was not only able to save my life, he was also able to bring me and the gold safely to Kamakura. No thanks to the men assigned to me as bodyguards by my head of guards.”

At this Hishigawa glared at the swordsman who had caught Kaze’s eye. The swordsman looked back at Hishigawa coolly, meeting his glare with a measured stare that was hard and full of power. The two men looked at each other for several seconds, until finally Hishigawa broke away. Glancing downward, he said, “Well, it’s no matter. I’m here. In fact, Matsuyama-san, I would like to introduce you to my head of guards. This is Enomoto-san.” Hishigawa again pointed with his chin, this time to the swordsman.

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