fiction by Richard Monaco
In 16th Century Japan, a civil war has left the nation in tatters…
Jiro Takezo is a ronin samurai – tied to no clan and scorned by many. A hard-drinking mercenary and master swordsman, he is looked down upon by his fellow samurai, thinking him without honor. Takezo also claims to be trained as a ninja, shadowy fighters with no pedigree and no honor, lowering him even further in the eyes of his peers. Now, Takezo is hired by a lord to find the murderer of a noblewoman, another lord’s daughter.
What follows is a gripping mystery, steeped in blood and tense drama as Takezo journeys throughout Japan to uncover the dark and terrible truth behind this woman’s disappearance. Soon, this samurai finds himself in the midst of a never-ending political plot as many lords manoeuvre for power throughout feudal Japan. Master of the sword and relentless detective, Takezo must pursue the truth at great cost – not only to himself, but to all players in the game who will suffer as truth comes to light and deadly games are played.
In this excerpt, Takezo attempts to investigate the body of the murdered noblewoman, daughter of Lord Izu…
Takezo walked over the bridge on the road to Hideo’s stronghold. It was slightly downhill on the far side of the river and the noon sun impacted the dust into quivering, blurry heat-shapes. The sky was so bright blue it hurt.
This was not so massive a place as the one on the south side of the bay miles from the growing city with complex mazes and blocking walls before you reached the actual main structure. Edo had been a fishing village and had expanded quite a bit but nothing like what was soon to come when it would be the unofficial capital and eventually, renamed Tokyo, the biggest city in Japan and, in population, the world.
He knew where they’d be keeping the body until tomorrow’s burial ceremony. With half the troops, not to mention Izu’s men and peasant recruits, out scouring the countryside for Colin and the other two it was a good time to investigate. The missing head had maddened the clan. A disgrace, in itself. Izu was in trouble.
He passed the gate where tradespeople and others were going in and out and went to the door he knew accessed the cellar, the coolest place in the huge building. At the portal a small, hunchbacked man with a severe limp responded to his pounding, opened the wood and metal door and stood blinking into the day’s dazzle. He was bald with an uneven scraggle of beard.
“Hm,” he grunted. “Are you delivering the buns? Where’s Oku?”
“Hm. Are you the keeper of the gate to hell?”
“Looks like me does he?” Liked that. Chuckled. “No doubt you’ll be knocking on that gate soon enough.” In the brightness, the sloppy clothes fooled the gatekeeper until he saw the swords at the other’s belt. No commoner carried katana and shogo. “Who let a samurai bum like you through the gate? Did you steal those swords? You’ll find hell in a minute, in that case.”
“You talk a lot, bent man. Show me to the body of the lord’s murdered girl.”
“You order me, you vagabond? I am, Momoichi, master of the cellars.”
“I have authority, Sir Momo.”
“Authority. From the king of the devils?”
“Interesting. Very likely.”
“Get away from here and go beg your supper, samurai.”
Takezo sighed. He didn’t need this. A number of peasants and castle folk were starting to gather amused. He reached into his pouch for the Nobunaga’s talisman but the fellow was already stepping back and shutting the inward opening door.
The ronin shoved it and knocked the little man down. He heard him scuttling and cursing in the dimness as he stepped inside, trying to focus past the bright wedge of sunlight spilling in around him. Something flashed the light near his head and his body barely ducked back with that uncanny, instant awareness that comes to those who, somehow, have “opened their spirit.” He needed it because this was as close as he’d come to death in a long time: the wicked weapon (a kind of long-handled scythe) hooked at his skull, slit his left ear and creased his neck.
Dog dung! His mind said. The deadly little man came quickly and unevenly out after him. Clear why they don’t need a guard here…
There was a spiked ball and chain that attached to the base of the scythe handle. He began to spin the ball before him in humming, looping, figure-eight arcs. The idea was to hit an opponent or catch his sword arm – except Takezo hadn’t drawn yet.
“I apologize,” he said, “for my rudeness.”
One of the female watchers yelled, to general laughter:
“Chase him old Momo!”
“He looks like a hungry dog caught by the butcher,” another said.
Momo whirled the ball over his head. The ronin drew but, because he didn’t want to fight or attract more attention, hesitated, pointing the blade level out front so the ball whipped the chain around his wrist, binding it to the handle and the surprisingly strong, bent man started pulling him into range of the scythe.
“Aaah,” grunted Momo, with satisfaction.
“He’s dead,” someone else commented from the sidelines.
“Foolish to pull me where I wish to go,” said Takezo, angry now.
And he charged the man which made the chain slack and no more than an annoying decoration. At the same time he drew his short sword with his left hand and blocked the vicious scythe-chop, then slammed Momo on the side of his skull with the flat of his long sword. The hard, round head rang like a block of sounding wood farmers use to signal.
He untangled himself while Momo groaned and rolled over in the sunbright cloud of dust they’d raised.
“So many bad tempers,” Takezo said.
Old Momo, touching his head and not saying much above a mutter, led the way down a ramp into the dark coolness under the castle, holding a torch that flapped their shadows around them.
“You should have circled when I rushed you,” the tall swordsman commented, thinking over the fight. He’d used the scythe and chain but never liked it because once you were committed there were few options. Touched his cut ear. Not much blood.
“I should have hit you the first time,” the limping man said, bitterly.
They’d come to a big, cool chamber where the light showed a single wooden coffin that looked like a barrel, tied with thick cloth across the top like a birthday present, used to bear the body to the graveyard.
“During the fighting days,” Momo said. Touched his head. “Arr… you dog.”
“I might have split your skull.”
“During the fighting days, this place was full of high-and-mighty dead men.”
“Is this the woman?”
“Woman? A body. Arr… ” Touched his head, again. “Important men were saved for a proper burial. They kept better down here”
“Did they appreciate the honor?” Takezo asked, drawing his short sword and freeing the coffin top. The light now showed a small shrine that had been set up on a table a few feet away.
“Ha. The rest went into a hole where they fell or were left to feed the birds.”
“Better to be important and saved for worms.” He lifted off the cover. “Bring the torch here.”
“What do you hope to see? She has no head.”
The body was folded, neatly. It was soft and slightly swollen, now. Spices had been poured in to mask the scent.
No head but hands, thought Takezo, studying the strange ring on her thumb where it was still too-large, though the fingers were somewhat swollen. He lifted the hand and noted it seemed to be gold. Odd… Why? She’s not Chinese… who wears rings? Sometimes people might take up a Chinese style but generally it was very rare. He was puzzled. It was put on her… who put it there? Why?
It was thick with a blood-red, dull, flat stone in an elaborate setting. He twisted it off, easily, and stowed it in his belt pouch.
Her mother looks a little Korean, he decided. But I never noticed a ring on her…
“What are you doing? Stealing from the dead?”
“Who said this was the lady Osan?”
“Mmm.” The hunchback’s round face was half-lit by the shifting flamelight as the samurai’s wide set, penetrating eyes watched him from his own shadows.
“There’s no head,” Takezo emphasized.
“That’s clear. Makes a problem for the ceremony.”
“Who washed and dressed her?”
“Her mother. The lady Issa. And some others. Anyway, she goes in the earth soon enough.”
“A mother ought to know her child, head or not. Better put that back or you’ll have no head yourself.”
Did Issa put this on her for some strange sentiment? That lady seems as tender-natured as a sea-snake… The girl had a rebellious nature but why wear something that doesn’t fit?
He took the torch and peered back in at the body. Someone had pinned a silken cloth over the neck creating an eerie impression. On impulse he adjusted the pale kimono where it had fallen over one shoulder. Had to lift and free it so that much of her naked body was exposed. This close the nasty pungency of decay overcame the stinging, almost choking spices.
In the shifting shadows he noticed something strange: pressed the softening flesh between her thigh and public hair to better expose a tattoo, very small, of what looked like a lily.
That must have hurt, he thought, covering her and setting back the round lid. A ring, a tattoo… did she live among foreigners or with savage men of the north? Hideo’s daughter?
They waded through the torchlight and shadow, up the long ramp back to daylight. The little man leaned, unevenly, along.
“I’ll return it, soon enough, maybe,” the ronin said.
“I’ll say nothing, though my skull is sore. As you say, it could have been worse.”
“I’m looking for the man they say killed her. If you hear anything interesting concerning this business, leave word for me at Haru’s tavern or the Pine and Crane, and you may be rewarded.”
“I know Haru’s.”
Takezo went out into the brightness and heavy heat. The last few days had been hotter than he could remember. Bad time to be an unburied corpse. Salting might be better, he considered. He went to the first front gate, past workers, merchants and samurai. Everybody was drooping a little. Moving slowly, he stopped by the sentry post and asked to see the Lady Issa.
The burly, short guard was unimpressed.
“So this is how to dress, fellow,” the guard inquired, “coming to Lord Hideo’s court?”
“Am I too formal?” he wondered, reaching out the golden tablet.
“Hah.” The guard squinted at it. “What’s this?”
“Can you read? Are your eyes sore?”
The sun was hot pressure on the back of his head. He needed a hat.
“Insolence,” said the guard.
The ronin sighed.
“No one approves of me,” he said. “Saddening.”
“I see it is a pass. Pass then. Take your bad manners, too.”
He entered the castle proper where the next sentry stood, holding a halberd-like weapon. Behind him light poured into the hall from high, narrow windows. The air was much cooler.
This one wanted to know if he had an appointment. He was graceful and friendly-looking.
“Tell her I have something that belonged to her late daughter,” Takezo said.
“Give it to me, then,” said the guard, but Takezo shook his head. “Do you expect money?”
“I expect to see Issa,” Takezo said.
“So must she be, whether I say so or not. Unless she’s otherwise.”
This man wasn’t irritated. His eyes showed amusement.
“Are you a samurai or did you steal those swords?”
“I won the katana in a duel with a spearman.”
The sentry smiled, faintly.
“I’ll submit your humble request to the Lady,” he said.
A 12-year-old with a short sword at his belt led Takezo to an anteroom. He’d slipped off his tabi at the main door and left them with a row of other footgear. Used a footbowl to wash his feet.
The room had a low, sliding door and a woman knelt-walked in with tea. She kept glancing sidelong at him, as most women did. He sat in a loose lotus position, stretched and looked at her soft delicate feet as she made the graceful serving movements.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” she responded. “Are you… ” Broke off, bowing her head.
He knew what was coming. Was used to it.
“No,” he said. “I am not Seki.”
“Ah. Yet you resemble him. I thought you might be in disguise.”
“Actors are always in disguise.”
He liked her face and was automatically flirting. But that brought back the image of Miou tossing the cursed comb in his face.
I’ll make Yazu swallow it whole, the ronin said to himself, that wretched thief…
As the girl was hunkering back out the low door, he said:
“Yes, sir,” she responded, bowing out and shutting the little panel.
Suppose I live a long life, he pondered. What will I do with it? Strange, how each woman is much the same yet where they are different, in the smallest ways, is a whole new dish to taste… the mystery is, why they endure men at all… there must be something in nature to blind them… He liked that idea. Smiled.
While he was employed staring at the wave and half-moon pattern on the floor matting and asking unanswerable questions, the door opened, again.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll entertain you, sweet beauty.”
“Gracious of you, Sir Jiro,” said a man’s voice, followed by the harsh, bony, handsome face and goatish body of the clan chamberlain, Reiko. “You flatter me.” He chuckled.
“Chamberlain, I’m dazzled.”
The wiry man bowed and sat on his heels across the low table. The girl came in with a tray of cups and three jugs of wine. That was unusual: normally, as you drank one they would go fetch another. Takezo nodded back, stiffly as ever.
Reiko’s droop-lidded, not-quite-impolite stare was on him.
“How generous,” the ronin said, indicating the three jugs.
“Why tire this girl with creeping in and out? We respect your great capacities, Sir Jiro.”
“Ah,” Takezo said, taking one of the jugs before the girl could pour and took a long, long swallow; unseemly, even in a low tavern. Impulse, again. And it was good. Highest quality, cool castle sake.
It annoyed him that Reiko seemed pleased. This chamberlain was known to be as devious as his lord, Hideo, was straightforward. While the master showed temper, the vassal showed very little, of anything.
Supposed to be a good swordsman and master of the spear, Takezo recalled. Hard to read his weaknesses…
“Where is the lady?” he asked, taking another deep swallow, as the girl, delicately, poured a cup for Reiko who ignored it and, instead, took a jug himself and sipped, motioning the girl to withdraw.
“Most unfortunate. You should have sent word ahead for an appointment. She is occupied. I have come in her place, Sir Jiro. You may open your heart to me.”
“You don’t need to call me ‘sir.’ And, don’t you mean open my belly, Chamberlain?” They both laughed, a little. “I’ll open my heart to you after the demons in hell,” Takezo concluded.
Reiko seemed to like that, too. Nodded and smiled.
“You are as rude as they say,” he observed.
Takezo felt pointlessly pleased with himself. He liked irritating authority. Could already feel the alcohol blending with his mind and lifting his spirits into a kind of jocular anger. Very, very good sake. Hint of cherries. He lifted the jug again, as did the other man. They drank for a while.
“Well,” said the chamberlain, “what might you want with the Lady Issa? You say you have something that belonged to her unfortunate child?”
Another swig. Now, there was a slight, bubbling blur in his head. He dimly sensed he was feeling it too fast. His eyes felt softened.
“I want to steal her from her noble husband,” he said. Noted that the other’s eyes weren’t reacting to the insult, itself, but looked he thought, (even through the soothing blurring) sharp and almost worried. “Poor Osan. Such a lovely woman. So gifted.” Reiko didn’t seem to show pain at this – but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Takezo considered he might have disliked her. It was well-known that men often felt threatened by her mind and competence. “I know your sorrow must be deep, chamberlain.”
“Like a hot knife in my heart, Sir Jiro.”
“So your heart has been found.”
The ronin shook the jug. Empty. Didn’t want to but reached for the next.
So easy to drink this, he thought. He always had trouble stopping. Unlike many drinkers, he didn’t hate himself for it. He tried to recall Genghis Khan’s law: Drinking must be restricted for when a man drinks too much his wits avail him little, his arrows miss the mark and he falls from his pony… something like that, I think… so a man must not drink to…
“As the Great Khan said,” he semi-quoted, closing his eyes, “a man must not drink to excess too many times a month. But who can abstain altogether?”
“Certainly not you, Sir Jiro. May I see what you have?”
“Your real question is: can you take it from me? How much blood is it worth, my lord chamber pot?”
That was extreme. The politician’s right hand clenched and stirred, slightly, towards the short sword he’d beside him when he sat. But he smiled, instead.
“Is what worth?” Reiko asked, coldly.
“How much blood for a trinket?”
“We must see, I suppose. Why do you test me, Takezo?”
“Now I’m not Sir Jiro anymore, eh?” Shut his eyes again and the room definitely shifted a little. Blinked hard, trying to concentrate. Took another swallow. His lips felt thicker. “We must see, I suppose, too.” Laughed. It seemed funny.
Reiko took a sip, from his cup, this time, watching, seeming to almost be timing Takezo’s progressing condition.
“We admire your skills,” said the chamberlain.
His skills are lost and he falls, the ronin went back to the quote.
“From my pony,” he said, and laughed, again.
“That’s very funny.”
He’s tricking me, his mind said. I’d like to kill him… Laughed.
He tucked his sword under his belt and stood up. The room tilted, slightly.
“Where is the lady?” he demanded.
“Bring me my pony, then.”
“What use is the ring to you?”
“Hm? What ring?”
“Osan’s ring. Give it to me, now.”
Takezo reeled. Headed for the door. Thought about how he’d have to duck down to get out.
“Who said it was a ring?”
“Where’s my pony, now?”
He crouched his way half out the sliding door and then stayed crouched for a few seconds. Shut his eyes but that was no good. Blinked them open.
“Can’t trust this room,” he said, looking out into the corridor. Noticed feet under robes, passing. Somewhere, far away, the chamberlain was saying:
“Best to rest, Sir Jiro.”
So he was Sir Jiro again. That couldn’t be good. The impaired spy shook his head like a wet dog and crawled out into the corridor. He decided not to stand, yet.
The serving girl knelt by him.
“I think the wine was strong, sir,” she said quietly. “May I assist you?”
Some people had stopped to watch. Takezo grunted and clumped forward on hands and knees. He was aware that Reiko was now standing behind him. He was also aware of men’s feet in fine quality tabi hose keeping pace with him. Someone snorted a laugh.
Fool, he told himself. … no restraint… I’m getting older… this kind of life is less interesting…
The chamberlain’s voice, high and far off, was saying:
“We must help this gentleman to a comfortable mat.”
“To a dog’s bed,” someone suggested. Laughter.
The girl knelt along with him, hand on one of his arms.
“If you are a ninja spy,” she whispered, “you are the worst one known.”
“Mn?” he grunted. “What’s this?”
“What humiliation,” a second male voice said.
“Shameless,” said the one who’d laughed. Laughed again.
“Get away from him, girl,” ordered Reiko.
“Trust Miou,” the young woman whispered as she bowed away from him.
“She hates me,” he reacted.
“She does not, Takezo-san,” he thought he heard her say.
How does she know Miou? Strong hands now lifted him to his feet. He felt better, letting himself sag in their arms. A mistake to help me up…
“Keep his sword safe, for him,” chamberlain Reiko recommended.
He was facing the wall where an ancient hanging scroll painting in red, black and gold, depicted an assassination. A lord at formal dinner with his retainers was suddenly being set upon by a samurai in priest’s robes. He thought he vaguely recalled the tale. Reminded him of something he’d once done on stage when he was a boy in the acting troupe…
He sagged lower to pull the two men forward, one on each arm, then arched the other way and broke their hold. The movement made the room take a quarter-turn and triggered nausea. Unless they drew weapons he couldn’t, not in here. A capital offense, generally, to attack while technically a guest.
He tilted and went at a rapid stagger into the main hall where he saw the blur of the two main doors and sentries – shut one eye and saw one of each.
Better, he thought. One eye… better than none… Was that a saying? Should be. Didn’t quite chuckle. Too many people now to attack a guest… even with one eye open… Had to chuckle that time as he reeled, unpredictably (on purpose) in the general direction of out, seeing lots of bright print outfits all around.
“Help that poor man,” cried Reiko from well back.
Someone tried but Takezo spun, half-fell, scrambled up and reeled almost to the big door, a shimmer of bright sun. The serving girl from the room reached for him and managed to get in the way of the next man.
“The lady Issa was occupied,” he called out, amused to be thwarting the chamberlain in a childish way since he was a little hazy on whether he really meant to help him or not. “I will come back another time.”
Paused and wobbled in the doorway. Looked for the girl but she was gone. He found that, again, curious. Had blurry ideas about her. The sentry was watching him, grinning.
“I’d come again more quietly,” he suggested.
Another one worth asking a few questions, his uncertain consciousness duly noted, as he went outside, weaving.
Reiko was closer, now.
“Stop him,” he commanded. “He has stolen something.”
Takezo went out into the shimmering, golden pressure of mid-summer heat. Stood, barefoot and waited, free to fight, now. He’d fought drunk, before. He knew the sake had been spiked, but they’d underestimated him. Ninjas, he knew, would have used a drug to put him under or the sleeping smoke he vaguely remembered being taught how to concoct as a boy. Several samurai stood in the doorway just inside the sunglare.
He squinted at their outlines in the stark shadow. Didn’t make out Reiko but heard him saying:
“Let him go. Not worth it now.”
“Give my regrets to the lady,” he told them.
“Come back sober,” one called out. “That way we’ll never have to see you.”
Lots of laughter. Somebody tossed his sandals to him and he slipped them on. Headed away from the castle.
Miou is right, he thought. I drink like a Mongol… That goat of a chamberlain is playing a game…