The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils (3 page)

Chapter 3

 

 

“What?” cried Matsuzo. “But we came to Miyako especially to enlist with Nobunaga!”

He was insulted by the suggestion that they become mere bodyguards, and bodyguards to some long-nosed devils at that. He glanced at Zenta to see how he reacted to Hambei's proposal, and he was surprised that Zenta did not look at all outraged, only interested.

“Give me a good reason why we should take the job,” Zenta said to Hambei.

“There are many anti-Portuguese elements in the city, people who don't hesitate at violence,” replied Hambei. “Nobunaga has a very high regard for the Portuguese, and if you take the job of protecting them, you will be already entering his service.”

“Why doesn't Nobunaga order some of his own men to protect the Portuguese?” asked Zenta.

“Some of the worst Portuguese haters are influential men,” explained Hambei. “Lord Fujikawa is one of them, and he is a favorite of the
shogun
. At the moment Nobunaga's relation with the shogun is rather delicate, and he wants to avoid unnecessary friction.”

“But there hasn't been a shogun with any power for generations,” objected Matsuzo.

“The present shogun is no more than a figurehead. How can he be a threat to Nobunaga?”

“Many people still regard the shogun as the symbolic military head of the country,” said Hambei. “Very soon Nobunaga's position will be strong enough so that he can challenge the shogun openly. But until then, he is afraid that many of the uncommitted warlords may unite and rally to the shogun's support.”

Zenta smiled. “If I understand you correctly, Nobunaga doesn't want his own men to risk a fight with Lord Fujikawa's bullies, but if we become involved, it will just look like a fight between some ronin.”

Hambei smiled back. “I didn't say that being bodyguards to the Portuguese would be an easy job.”

From the window of the restaurant the three men could see the two Portuguese cross the Gojo Bridge. The man in half armor stopped and wiped the perspiration from his face.

“They suffer from the heat just like normal people!” said Matsuzo, surprised.

“Nobunaga personally ordered me to find bodyguards for the Portuguese,” said Hambei. “If you accept this position, you will attract his notice more than if you were one of hundreds of samurai with routine duties.”

Hambei's last argument had been unnecessary. To Matsuzo's alarm, Zenta nodded agreement, his decision apparently made. When Hambei left to pay for the meal, Matsuzo whispered fiercely, “Are you seriously thinking of taking Hambei's suggestion?”

“Yes,” replied Zenta. “Why not?”

“But being henchmen to some long-nosed devils is so degrading! Do we really have to sink so low?”

Zenta's face went rigid. After a moment he said, “You are not a hereditary vassal of my family, and there is no reason for you to follow me. We have been more like teacher and student. I know that I haven't been able to provide decent food and shelter for you recently, not even a bath. If you find life too degrading, you are free to leave.”

Matsuzo, not having realized that his remarks could be interpreted as a complaint, was overcome with shame. “You've misunderstood me completely,” he said. “I wasn't criticizing you. I merely had the impression that Hambei didn't want you to work for Nobunaga, and the bodyguard job was to get you out of the way. He also tried to discourage you by describing Nobunaga's violent temper.”

The anger left Zenta's face and was replaced by surprise. “Hambei knew perfectly well that Nobunaga's violent temper wouldn't frighten me away. And why do you think he wants to stop me from working for Nobunaga?”

“I thought he might be a little jealous of you,” said Matsuzo in a low voice. “Perhaps he didn't want you to surpass him in Nobunaga's favor.”

Zenta looked even more astonished. “There is absolutely no reason for Hambei to be jealous of me. During all the times that we worked together, we have never been rivals. How can he possibly be jealous? Look at how successful he is and then look at me!”

He paused and examined Matsuzo. “But speaking of jealousy makes me wonder if
you
might be a little jealous of
him
. You're attracted to Chiyo, aren't you? And he is obviously her close friend.”

Matsuzo felt his face burning. But he was that rare being, a totally honest person, and he examined his feelings carefully before replying. “I do like Chiyo, but I don't think that was the reason why I suspected Hambei's motives.”

Zenta seemed to regret his harshness. “You must not be misled by Hambei's insulting way of speaking to me. It's just his manner. As for accepting the job, I suppose you deserve an explanation at least. I think this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the foreigners. I might even get some expert instruction on how to use a gun.”

“Please forget what I said,” muttered Matsuzo. “Of course I shall join you as bodyguard to the Portuguese.”

There was no time to say more, for they heard Hambei's step on the stairs. “If you've finished stuffing yourselves, let's go and find the Portuguese,” he said to the two ronin.

When they emerged from the restaurant, however, the foreigners were out of sight. “We can go directly to their residence,” suggested Hambei. “It's slightly south of here, and I know the way. I've gone there on business several times.”

Now that the sun was setting, the air was cooler and Matsuzo found the walk very pleasant after the heavy meal. His interest was soon caught by some of the famous Miyako landmarks that they were passing. His family was from a remote northern province, and he had visited only castle towns with their narrow, crooked streets. The broad, straight avenues of the capital were unlike anything he had seen before.

As they walked Matsuzo tried hard to prevent himself from staring openmouthed like a country boy on his first visit to the city. But Hambei, whatever his manner towards Zenta, showed not a hint of condescension towards the younger man. Matsuzo soon lost his shyness and eagerly poured out his questions about the capital city. He learned that the major avenues of Miyako were laid out in a rectangular pattern, and that the big east-to-west avenues were numbered, from First Avenue to Ninth Avenue. They were now walking along Gojo, Fifth Avenue.

Eventually they left the broad avenue and turned into a narrow street. Ahead of them they saw two Portuguese. “There they are,” said Hambei. “That's their residence down the street.”

At that moment, the front gate of a nearby house opened and a file of samurai emerged, escorting a sedan chair enclosed by bamboo blinds.

“I don't like the looks of this,” said Hambei. “Those are Lord Fujikawa's men, and there may be trouble.”

His prediction was fulfilled immediately. The Portuguese who was in half armor swung aside to make way for the sedan chair, but he had little room in the narrow street and his sword struck against the bamboo blind.

The leader of the samurai turned his head and glared. “Clumsy foreign devil!” he snarled. “You have just insulted our lady!”

His men added their voices to his. One of them made remarks about the foreigner's blue legs, while another said something obscene about the puffed pants and what they concealed.

The priest in the long gown walked serenely on, probably unable to understand the remarks, but the armed Portuguese evidently understood Japanese well, for his face turned dusky red and his hands clenched around his gun.

“Come on,” said Zenta and began to run forward.

Matsuzo looked around, surprised to find Hambei walking rapidly away in the opposite direction.

“Hambei can't afford to get involved in this,” explained Zenta quickly. “He is known to be Nobunaga's henchman. He is confident that he can leave the matter to us.”

Things were reaching a critical stage. One of the samurai drew a sword, and immediately the Portuguese raised his gun into firing position. The samurai shrank back. He had obviously heard about the gun's terrifying power.

“I will fire upon the first man who tries to attack me,” declared the Portuguese. His Japanese was perfectly understandable, for the consonants and vowels were very accurately produced. The intonation was somewhat strange, however, and to Matsuzo's ear the speech sounded like a familiar song sung to the wrong tune. What ruined the foreigner's speech most disastrously was that he used verb forms that were spoken only by women.

As soon as he spoke, the awe produced by his weapon vanished, and the leader of the samurai laughed with contempt. “Let's get rid of this foreigner once and for all. He won't have time to kill us if we all rush him at once.”

“Wait!” called Zenta as the men drew their swords. He came up to the leader of the samurai and said, “I saw the whole incident. The Portuguese meant no insult. He was trying to move aside and make room, and his sword struck the sedan chair entirely by accident. I'm sure that he will be glad to apologize.”

The leader of the samurai stared at the dusty and unshaven ronin. “How dare you meddle here? Who are you, anyway?”

Zenta placed himself in front of the foreigner who held the gun. “We are the new bodyguards for the Portuguese,” he replied.

The leader laughed. “Then you are exactly what they deserve!” Turning to his men he said, “Come on. We'll get rid of these vagabonds first and then finish off the Portuguese.” Zenta beckoned to Matsuzo. “It seems that we shall have to teach these men a lesson,” he said. “Now remember, don't kill anyone. Use the back of your sword whenever possible.”

Zenta had once worked as an instructor in a fencing academy, and he liked to adopt his classroom manner during actual combat. It never failed to intimidate his opponents by reducing them to the status of students. On Lord Fujikawa's men it had the desired effect. Involuntarily they retreated a step.

The leader was bolder, however. Sensing his control of the situation slipping, he glared at his men and shouted, “What are we waiting for? Let's sweep the streets clean of these beggars!”

“I think that the heat must have affected your brain,” Zenta said to the leader. “Let me cool your head by cutting off your topknot.”

In spite of himself the leader began to share the uneasiness of his men. But out of the corner of his eye he saw the bamboo blinds of the sedan chair twitch, and he knew that he could not retreat with the eyes of his mistress on him. “You can't frighten me!” he cried and lunged forward, swinging his sword at the ronin's smiling face.

Zenta easily dodged the blow. He still had not raised his sword, and his eyes were narrowed in calculation.

The leader made another slashing attack, putting all his strength behind the swing. When the ronin again evaded the blow, the leader felt a cold lump growing in his stomach. Resolved to lose his life rather than his topknot, he made a third desperate attack. His mistake was to focus his attention on the ronin's long sword, and he didn't see his opponent's left hand whip out his short sword from his sash.

The leader felt only a gentle tug at the top of his head. A moment later there was a tickling sensation around his neck. In stunned silence, he looked down and stared at the small knot of hair now lying between his feet. The rest of his hair, released when the topknot was cut off, hung loose down to his shoulders.

With a loud wail of shame and anger, the leader threw himself on the ground. He tore open the front of his kimono, drew his short sword and prepared to plunge it into his abdomen. The rest of the men stood motionless, for no samurai would dare to interfere in the solemn rite of hara-kiri.

But one person did. “Kotaro!” said a voice from the sedan chair, and a delicate white hand raised the bamboo blind. “What do you think you are doing? Stop this foolishness at once and get on with our visit to the shrine!”

Kotaro, about to embark on a dramatic death to wipe out his shame, dropped his sword hastily and scrambled to his feet. “Yes, Lady Yuki, at once!” he stammered.

As Kotaro straightened his clothes and gave orders to his men, Lady Yuki leaned out to study the two ronin. Matsuzo found her pale, narrow face rather overrefined. Her expression was one of complete boredom, but when her glance rested on Zenta, it showed a glimmer of interest.

Matsuzo saw this interest and was troubled by it. They had enough complications without getting involved with a girl who looked as spoiled as Lady Yuki did.

The sedan chair was finally lifted and the bamboo blind dropped back into place. Staring after the procession, Matsuzo gave a start when he heard a voice behind him say, “Are you really our new bodyguards?”

It was the Portuguese with the gun.

Chapter 4

 

 

When Zenta nodded, the Portuguese said, “You arrived just in time. Those men didn't know, but I could never have lighted my gun in time. Who sent you?”

“We were sent by Hambei, who was acting under Nobunaga's orders,” said Zenta. “Have Lord Fujikawa's men tried to attack you before?” “Up to now they were satisfied with a few insults,” replied the Portuguese. “When they got bolder, I simply pointed my gun at them, and that was enough to keep them at a distance. I wonder what made them attack today?” Zenta smiled. “I think your prestige slipped badly when you started to talk to them. You were using a woman's style of speech.”

“So that was it!” said the Portuguese. “I learned your language from some women in a fishing village. I had been shipwrecked and had to spend a long time in the village recovering. With the men away at sea, it was mostly the women who taught me the language. I keep forgetting that men and women speak differently here. In our language we don't make a distinction.”

This was added proof that the Portuguese were a strange and barbaric people, thought Matsuzo as he took his first close look at the foreigner. The man's most prominent feature, of course, was his nose. Not only did it jut out from his face to an extraordinary degree, but the nostrils were correspondingly large. Matsuzo wondered what would happen if the foreigner caught cold and his nose started to run. He might have to catch the catarrh with a basin! Next to the nose, the strangest feature was the eyes. At least they were a normal brown color, although Matsuzo had heard that some foreigners had gray or even blue eyes. They were, however, very round and set so deeply that almost half of the eyelids were hidden. Altogether it was a very craggy face, with prominent protuberances and deep indentations. With his even and white teeth, the foreigner did have a pleasant smile, and the smile made him look very friendly and human.

Other books

Milk-Blood by Mark Matthews
Hostile Witness by William Lashner
REAPER'S KISS by Jaxson Kidman
Out of Bounds by Lauren Blakely
It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Hell and Gone by Duane Swierczynski
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Two Pints by Roddy Doyle