The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 6

The telltale sound of metal grinding against metal should have warned Masaru to walk away. The cook had intentionally wandered near the castle’s great hall, a place where the Shogun’s loyal Samurai were practicing their techniques of sword, knife, and bow. And while the castle had well over one hundred servants, Masaru was the only one who daily walked about the passageways bordering the hall. He enjoyed staying in the shadows, watching the men practice their combat techniques. Among half the servants Masaru was legendary; the other half thought he should be locked in a cage for his own protection.

So as not to injure themselves, the Samurai often practiced on frightened laborers grabbed as they walked near the hall. Most were too scared to do anything but accept the soon-to-come beating, but Masaru was different. Knowing he had the favor of the Shogun, Masaru always defended himself, being careful to not accidentally insult the Samurai. What they did not know was Masaru’s mother had taught her son more than just cooking.

“Hataka Masaru – the kitchen can wait. Come stand over here. Now.”

Today, however, Masaru found himself with a true dilemma. He could not disobey the Samurai, for to do so meant probable death. Yet, if they discovered the kaiken’s blade hidden inside his kimono sleeve, there would be questions. And then his death would follow with certainty.

This indiscriminate power to kill peasants was an accepted part of Bushido, the warrior’s code. And until now, Masaru’s desire to become a Samurai had not been personally tested by the consequences of following the entire code.

Masaru was positioned in the center of the hall. Here there was adequate space for combat; the furnishings having been moved to the side. Samurai gathered around, forming an inescapable perimeter ten paces in diameter. He knew what was coming next. The senior man was about to impart wisdom to his charges, and Masaru would be the demonstration. He clenched his muscles, ready to accept the pain.

Two Samurai stepped forward and bound Masaru’s hands in front of him using a strip of old fabric. A third came up from behind and tied a blindfold across his eyes. The cloth scraped his skin, but Masaru knew better than to flinch; he wanted to remain as silent as possible. His ears would tell him what was happening.

The senior was instructing his students about the higher techniques of controlling a prisoner. The news of the one-armed thief had travelled quickly throughout Castle Edo, and the leader of the Shogun’s Samurai knew his position, and his life depended on such an occurrence never happening again.

“Your prisoner no longer has the use of his hands, and his eyes are blind,” the man said. He slowly circled around Masaru, pointing to the blindfold and the cloth handcuffs. “He tries to escape. How can you stop him?”

A student stepped forward two paces.

Masaru could not see, but knew from the smell of the man’s sweat that he was now directly in front. Masaru’s nose detected this odor was not the normal stench associated with wearing the chain-mail armor coverings, the kusari gusoku. No, the novice Samurai stank of fear.

Instinct caused Masaru to jump, lifting his feet as high as his muscles could flex. The swooshing sound of a wooden Bo whiffed by Masaru at ankle-height. He had dodged the first attack, then readied himself for the next movement of the Samurai’s bojutsu kata, the litany of physical actions used with the long staff.

Masaru, with only a moment to react, raised his arms in hopes of catching the descending pole before it landed a debilitating hit on his neck. The cloth handcuffs entrapped the bo; and Masaru dropped to his knees pulling the young Samurai’s staff down with him.

The clatter of the oak weapon skittering away was drowned out by the laughter of the other Samurai. The senior admonished the warriors to stop, putting his hand on top of the handle of his katana. The older Samurai knew their leader would not draw the sword from its sheath, for that would indicate someone, a Samurai no less, would have to die. The junior Samurai had no clear indication of their mentor’s intentions, though, and silence was immediately restored.

“Masaru, you are wasting our time as a cook. Had you been born into a higher class, you would do well to join us. Perhaps you have spent more time observing our methods than stirring the Shogun’s soup?”

Masaru knew his station in life. To speak now would be an affront to the Samurai, implying he considered himself an equal. A deep and prolonged bow would suffice. He hoped.

The senior motioned his charges away to another part of the great room. It was time for archery and Masaru wanted no part of it. Arrows flew much faster than wooden poles could be thrust, and being hit with a stick was one thing; feeling the sharp point of an errant arrow wielded by a warrior in training was another.

As Masaru returned on his journey to the kitchen, he noticed another servant carrying two large buckets of potatoes. It was Ichiro. How long had he been watching? Had he been watching at all? Why was he watching?

Masaru, remembering the one-armed thief from the midday meal, tried not to look too closely at Ichiro’s arms as the man lugged the heavy buckets. Still, Masaru wanted to know if the mark on Ichiro’s forearm matched the one he had seen on the limb sliced from the thief.

Something was wrong; something bad was going to happen. Masaru’s instincts were overstimulated, probably from the blindfolded attack he assumed. But still, Masaru had a gut feeling the incident in the Shogun’s antechamber was just the beginning.

“Masaru,” his new assistant said, “we must hurry to your kitchen. I have something very important to tell you.”

The man’s kimono sleeves had slid up just enough to confirm Masaru’s theory. The marks were not burns. They were tattoos. And only two types of people in Edo had such markings. Criminals, and those who would soon enough become one.

Masaru said nothing in reply, instead letting his own sleeve loosen enough to allow the hidden blade enough freedom to slip down into his palm.

As the two reached the privacy of the kitchen, Masaru spoke. “I see you have brought more potatoes. Very good. We will both make another journey to the markets to get the other foods needed for the dinner tonight. And some fish. But only if we can carry it ourselves.” The last thing Masaru wanted was another stranger in his midst.

“Hataka Masaru. You have not had training as a Samurai, yet you do well against their attacks.”

Masaru slowly backed away from the man. He did not know if this was a challenge or flattery designed to gain something else. “I have watched the Samurai move through their bojutsu kata many times. I know which moves follow every strike. It was a simple matter of hearing when and where the first attack would occur.”

“I think it more than just observation. You and I both know. Your mother taught you well.”

       How did this man know my mother?

♦ ♦ ♦

Heterographs and the art of reading

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

A recent post on Penguin’s Book Country espoused the benefit of reading. And I am in complete agreement. Hard to believe coming from a guy who in his youth read the bare minimum to keep scholastically alive and kicking. Now, however, as a writer, I am playing catch-up, and have a stack of books just waiting for me to open.

Of course, I did read something daily from the mid 1970s through the mid 2000’s – music, a different language using different symbols, but reading all the same. Helped with brain cognition and neural network formation, or so the smart people say. In my old crowd, the word “read” was usually referring to small-ish wooden slivers called “reeds.” As on online dictionary stated, read and reed  are actually “homophonic heterographs.” Try using that one at your next cocktail party. Okay, maybe not.

Anyway, with regard to reeds, a woodwind musician is on a neverending quest always looking to find the best one. With a great reed, a musician can produce a much better sound. A bad one can get you fired. And no one wants that. There are only so many jobs in the fast food industry.

For writers, a better “read” will only help them become a better writer. What constitutes such a good book? That’s the fun part, you don’t really know until you start reading!

Back to Book Country for a moment: I have been asked to read and comment on a draft of a historical novel set in mid-to-late 1800s Montana (hence the photo of Glacier Nat’l Park above.) The Ghost at Beaverhead Rock is a page-turner written by  Carol Buchanan. This book is well-researched and contains themes that could easily apply in today’s world. After all, greed and jealousy weren’t invented last week.

Because of my agreement to read the book, and comment – and because I am waaaay behind in my daily bible reading, I am taking my own advice and making this week a reading week. And by the way, in case your bible is still in your car, and your car is in the shop this week (who knew wheel bearings were so important?) you can always link to an online bible. I now have the Revised Standard Version linked on my favorites thanks to biblestudytools.com. This site has many translations and commentaries. If you are going to hang out online, this is not a bad place to spend time.

That’s it for now. Back to reading – unless the Nobel Committee calls. I hope they didn’t lose my phone number like last year.

Keep the ink well full.

DJ

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 5

Masaru stopped, his hand frozen at the door’s threshold. The Shogun had asked him a question, an unexpected question yet one Masaru knew his life’s longevity hinged upon. There was no time to think; an answer was due. And it needed to be the correct answer.

“Shogun, I do not think the enemies within the castle walls are plotting against you.”

The ruler of Edo and all Japan put down his soup bowl. His left hand stroked his black, wiry beard as his right drifted across his belly, coming to rest on the handle of his sword. The man started to smile. A short laugh erupted at Masaru’s expense.

“For a cook, you have more wisdom than all of my advisers. Just like your mother.” The Shogun resumed his lunch, slurping the hot soup as if it were water drawn from a cool mountain stream.

“Will that be all, Shogun?” Masaru bowed deep to his master, holding his head down hoping the lack of eye contact would give him permission to leave. Hearing no reply, he inched his torso back to an upright stance, still being careful to remain slightly lower than the Shogun.

“You said enemies, Hataka Masaru. Within the castle walls, yes?”

This was the situation Masaru had feared the most. All he had wanted to do was deliver the soup and leave. Now, a curious Shogun was engaging him in a conversational interrogation. Masaru knew if he was caught in a lie, his head would roll. And a lie of omission would be worse. There were certain appendages no man wanted to be without.

“Shogun, I have seen Ronin.”

“My Samurai have not seen anything of the sort. Where are these lost warriors?”

Masaru was about to answer when a scuffle broke out in the antechamber. He lunged for the wooden beam used to secure the door. But before he could secure the room and protect his master, the Shogun pushed Masaru aside and rushed out. The glint of the Shogun’s katana flashed in front of Masaru.

By the time Masaru regained his balance, the fight was over. Two Samurai stood tall, swords in hand, each blade coated with blood. On the floor lay what remained of one of the food tasters. Kira was rising up from behind the thick wooden door; for the moment he was unable to speak.

The dead man’s body was contorted by the force of two sharp blades slicing him in quick succession. Masaru knew the death was instantaneous. The man felt no pain; a gruesome yet merciful way to die. The Shogun directed one of the Samurai to unlock the iron handcuff from the severed arm. Masaru assumed the dead man had tried to escape. He was wrong.

Kira, seeing the danger now gone, came forward to explain the prisoner had slipped one hand out from the cuffs and tried to assassinate the Shogun. Kira said he had ordered the Samurai to protect the Shogun, but it was evident the two Samurai waited for no such order.

As the sentries dragged the dead man and his arm out of the chamber, Kira begged an audience with the Shogun. Masaru had seen this behavior before; it was not honest – it was deceitful and more than likely evil. If the cook could change any aspect of his life now, he would become a Samurai. They knew their purpose, their value. They were honorable. Unlike Kira.

Now alone in the antechamber, Masaru picked up the pot handle that had dropped from his sleeve. As much as he wanted to consider the piece of wood a weapon, after seeing the power of the katana, Masaru knew he would someday need to have his own. He, unfortunately, had no idea how this would occur.

Turning to secure the door to the Shogun’s room, Masaru noticed something sticking in the door’s frame. It was a small dagger.

Masaru pulled the knife out. Could Kira have been correct? After all, had the door not been there to stop the knife’s flight, it would have gone into the Shogun’s room. Masaru held the knife up to the light streaming in from the window. There were no kanji, no discernible markings on the blade. No blood, either. The attacker had missed his mark.

Something still bothered him, though. How would the attacker know the door would open, and at what precise time?

Masaru sat down in the chair used by the food tasters. He mimicked his hands being bound by the irons. Standing up, he raised his left arm as the attacker would have done. Twisting around to now face the door to the Shogun’s room, Masaru pretended to hit the nearest guard, the one approaching from Masaru’s left side.

Of course! Masaru extended his left arm to allow the fictitious Samurai to chop it off with one arc from the katana. He then raised his right arm, aiming at the door. This man knew he would be killed, yet he chose to sacrifice his left arm first to draw attention away from the right. In the commotion, the attacker probably hoped no one would notice the thrown dagger until it was too late.

His right hand following the path of the knife, Masaru walked straight to the door. The dagger had impaled itself deep, at a depth almost the length of his little finger. That’s when Masaru noticed the torn piece of black silk stuck inside the opening.

Maybe the attacker wasn’t trying to assassinate the Shogun, he wondered. What if the man was trying to protect him?

Masaru heard Kira and the Shogun speaking in the next room, but knew he could not accuse Kira of anything without losing his own arm, or worse. He decided it was time to return to the safety of his kitchen.

He started walking the corridors back to the Shogun’s private kitchen. With such dramatic events of the day now over, Masaru hoped his new assistant would return with the needed supplies soon. As he walked, Masaru kept adjusting the dagger now hidden within his sleeve. He was not accustomed to weaponry. A sad commentary, he thought, for a cook who wanted to become a Samurai.

Murder on the Amtrak Express?

 

          Writers on the Rails – All Aboard!

Probably not murder, but one never knows what may happen when you put a bunch of writers on a train. ICYMI – Amtrak recently announced their first class of writers-in-residence. This very cool program started out as a brief quip from a blogger and has progressed into a full blown, official long-distance residency for writers.

Imagine the benefits. You get to see the vast stretches of America you normally miss when driving your car. After all, when you are behind the wheel you are either looking for the next restroom, gas station, or speed trap. On a train? You get to people watch with a captive audience! Judging by the potential stories I see every time I go to an airport, a long train ride could also provide excellent fodder for the imagination.

Another plus – limited Internet and phone access. No distractions. Need I say more?

So who are these 24 writers now packing their bags to hit the rails like modern day Hobo-Hemingways? (I just made that up. Can you tell?) I won’t describe all 24, you can read more about them using the link above, but what a diverse group. Among them are a few nationally known broadcasters, a former spy, a sports writer, a movie reviewer, a noted transgender writer, several national award winning authors, and then there’s Ksenia Anske.

If you don’t know Ksenia Anske, you should. A Russian by birth, Ksenia arrived in the US in 1998. Since then she has been named one of the Top 100 Women in Seattle Tech. A published fantasy author, Ksenia is also very, very, very active on Twitter. Not that I am the expert on the Twitter-verse, but I will say Ksenia tweets some of the snarkiest comments I have seen there. Probably why she is so popular? if you are a writer, her Twitter feed is worth checking out @kseniaanske.

Amtrak scored big with this new residency program. I hope it continues; maybe I’ll apply some day. In the meantime, I may just send Google a note asking them to send me one of their self-driving cars. If I had one, I could start my own residency program as I commuted to and from work. That would provide me an extra hour and a half of writing time each day!

If only it came with an attached club car…

 

Against my Better Judgement

Just time for a quick note – if you haven’t “liked” Book Country on FaceBook you really should  do it soon.

In a matter of hours, the good people of Penguin’s online writer’s community will be announcing their next sweepstakes. I don’t know what it will be, but they treat us writers very well so one can only hope it will be on par with an autographed copy of the Gutenberg bible, maaaaybeeeee something slightly less, but we will just have to wait and see, won’t we?!

And it all starts on the Book Country FaceBook page.

So join the thousands of writers in the BC community. Post bits big or small of your work for peer review; read smatterings from up and coming writers. Heck, use their publishing options and enjoy life without having to deal with bloodsucking really really large self-publishing venues working in tandem with [redacted by lawyers.] And by all means peruse the many BC discussion boards, for as Bill Cosby once said, “If you’re not careful, you just might learn something.”

Now that I think about it, the more of you who “like” Book Country on FaceBook, the less chance I will win the sweepstakes. Against my better judgement I post this information. Promise me this, if you win – after you do your happy dance, and I know you have one – we all have one – just don’t right any vampire stories unless it has a vegan vampire in there somewhere.

Hmm. Now that gives me an idea…

 

 

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 4

Nani shite no aho!

Masaru was used to being called an idiot by the members of the higher classes. One more time mattered not to the man destined to remain a cook his entire life. Seeing Kira dance on one foot was enough entertainment to make up for the insult. Even the two Samurai chuckled at the sight.

All commotion stopped when the door opened.

The Shogun had heard the scream and came through the door, katana in hand. Once he saw what had happened, he joined in the laughter, saying “Kira, I have told you many times to stay away from my servants. When you are Shogun, you can have your own.”

The Shogun took the tip of his sword and slowly traced the scar on Kira’s cheek. “But if I were you, I would worry about others more dangerous than my cook.”

Masaru was invited into the next room. Kira started to follow but the Shogun shut the door as his advisor stepped up to the portal. Just having the Shogun open and close his own door was an incredible slight to the advisor – such tasks were always left to assistants and advisors such as himself. Now he was without an audience to the ruler of all Japan.

Inside, Masaru placed the pot of soup on a table, turned and started to walk back toward the door, knowing he would come face to face with the furious Kira. Masaru reached for the pot handle now secured back in the left sleeve of his kimono. He would not draw it unless Kira came at him. Would his good relationship with the Shogun spare him a death sentence for clubbing a scoundrel like Kira? After all, Masaru would just be finishing the job started by Saito Takeji.

Masaru had dreamed of being a Samurai since childhood. Would killing Kira give the Ronin loyal to the house of Saito a new master? “Another dream,” he told himself. Masaru was born into a low class in society. Bravery on the battlefield was his only chance to become a Samurai, and even that chance was never guaranteed. Becoming a Daiymo was not a possibility.

Before Masaru could pull open the door, the Shogun spoke.

“Hataka Masaru, please tell me. Am I in danger?”

♦ ♦ ♦

The 13th Samurai, Act 1, Scene 3

Masaru used a short wooden pole to pick up the iron pot of soup, taking it away from the fire. With a nod of his head, Masaru motioned for Ichiro to place a nearby lid on top of the pot. There was not so much to worry about the soup getting cold, but rather the boiling hot liquid sloshing out and burning the cook. With the long, winding passageways inside Castle Edo, this was a daily risk for all of the cooks.

As Masaru stepped left foot then right, then left again, his barefoot toes felt the lay of the cobblestones leading upward. The pathways were long and winding. Around every corner or bend in the path were small alcoves inset at varying heights, perfect defensive positions for the Samurai loyal to the Shogun. Torches lit much but not all of the cobbled stone walkways, their smoke hindering visibility at times. Masaru, however, had made the daily journey so often the obstacles meant nothing. He just needed to be careful.

A voice behind him asked “Which way? I am confused?”

It was Masaru’s new assistant cook. The man was trying to find his way to the main entrance of the castle so he could venture out to the markets and obtain more fresh vegetables. Spy or assassin, it mattered not to Masaru since at best the man would return with vegetables needed for the dinner. At worst, he would fall victim to one of the false passageways, those leading to nowhere.

Some of those routes were ascending, others dropping steeply. Invaders assuming the elevated paths would lead to the Shogun would find themselves at a walled-in summit guarded by archers aiming their arrows downward. Survivors, if any, might have tried to escape down one of the other paths, but there deep pits awaited.

Masaru told his assistant to stay on the level pathways. He warned going up would get him lost for hours; downward in any fashion and he would never be found.

Ichiro gave another short bow, then picked up his empty sack and went on his way. This simple errand, albeit a necessary one, would allow Masaru enough time to speak to the Shogun. He dared not speak to anyone else. Especially to Kira.

Arriving at the antechamber of the Shogun’s dining room, Masaru set the pot on the table, removing the wooden handle and stowing it away in the folds of his kimono as a Samurai would. Masaru had no formal training in weaponry but had seen enough martial training to know the short pole would make for a decent club in a fight. With a Samurai hiding in his kitchen, Masaru wanted to take no chances. There could be more.

The door opened.

It was Kira, followed by a man whose wrists were cuffed in irons. Two Samurai entered and stood behind the man. The daily ritual had begun.

“Masaru, do you assert this soup has not been poisoned?” Ichiro rattled off the words just as he had done every day for the past several years. Masaru knew the game. If the soup actually did contain poison, once the body of the food taster had been taken away, Masaru would be the next taste tester whether he wanted to be or not.

“The soup is just as the Shogun prefers. There is no poison in it.” Turning to the shackled man now sitting at the table, Masaru continued. “Do not worry. You will eat better here than if you had been sent to the mines on Sado.”

“Yes,” Kira added. “And perhaps live longer. But for now, taste the soup, thief.”

There was no effort made to remove the iron handcuffs from the prisoner’s wrists. Instead, one of the Samurai dipped a small wooden bowl into the soup pot, then pushed the bowl up to the man’s mouth. As soup spilled over the reluctant diner’s face, the second Samurai drew his katana.

The sound of the metal blade being withdrawn from its sheath was enough to convince the man to swallow.

The room fell silent as everyone waited.

Beads of sweat formed on the man’s brow. His tongue smacked against the inside of his cheeks and teeth. The soup had scalded his mouth. As he gasped for breath in an effort to bring relief to his blistering skin, Kira pulled the man’s head back by the hair.

“Let me look into your eyes, thief. Do I see death? Or not.”

Masaru decided enough was enough and used his leverage with the Shogun to move things along. “He is not dead. Let me bring the Shogun his lunch before it gets cold. You know how he is intolerable of cold soup. Or should I tell him you wanted to play with the thief while the meal cooled?”

“Do not try my patience, cook. The Shogun may be your benefactor now, but he is old. The next Shogun may not be so, so friendly, to one of such a lower class.”

Masaru did not reply, instead inserting the pole back into the pot. On his way through the doorway leading to the Shogun’s private room, Masaru let the pole slip just slightly to one side. He had cooked more soup than the Shogun would normally want and he had done so intentionally. Kira’s left leg received an unexpected cleansing.

Birds roosting on the highest points of the castle wall took flight; farmers stopped their carts. And Masaru wondered if the Jesuit heard the devil’s cry?

♦ ♦ ♦