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.