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?

♦ ♦ ♦

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.

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?

♦ ♦ ♦

The 13th Samurai – Act 1, Scene 2

“Do you not speak, Ichiro?” Masaru ignored the weapon for the moment and tried to focus on his new assistant’s eyes. What was this new man’s intent?

Masaru’s mother had once said a killer had the gaze of a normal person until the decision had been made to take a life. She knew from painful experience being one of two survivors of a near-massacre at the hands of drunken ronin, Samurai who no longer had a master. Masaru, a babe in her arms at the time, was the other survivor.

“Why does Yamato Kira fear you?” Ichiro retorted as he sliced the yellow carrots with deliberate, slow strokes of his blade.

Masaru broke a few pieces of dried kombu and added it to the devil’s tongue soup. The saltiness of the kelp harvested from the northern island of Hokkaido would give the soup the balance all dishes required.

“Kira does not fear me. He despises me.” Masaru had no other way to say the truth.

“Yet he lets you cook for the Shogun. Is he not afraid you will poison your master?”

Masaru’s mind, honed to a sharp edge of skepticism and wariness from twenty years of living in Castle Edo, began to question the assistant cook’s motivation. Why does this man ask these questions? With each stroke of Ichiro’s knife slicing through the sturdy root vegetables, Masaru knew his interest would became obsessive.

He noticed the pieces of carrot falling over in rhythmic succession. If Ichiro had anything to do with a plot to kill either the Shogun or Kira, perhaps Masaru could force a sign of recognition.

“It is no secret,” Masaru said. “Besides, there are those who will taste all of the food before it reaches the Shogun. I would say if anyone is in danger, it is Kira, not the Shogun.”

The knife did not waiver. The carrots continued to fall, one after another like the low-pitched ringing of the bonsho bell calling the Buddhist monks to prayer.

Masaru would need to stay alert. Something was not right. The Shogun had always treated him and his late mother well, almost like family. Masaru felt an obligation to protect the Shogun if he could, as if the army of loyal Samurai were not capable. He rationalized his thought by telling himself he was on the inside of the castle; most of the Samurai guarded the outside. What if the enemy were within?

Ichiro had finished preparing the vegetables and asked what else was needed. When Masaru turned around to answer, he noticed the man’s knife had already been secured out of sight, save the tip of the handle sticking out just below the edge of the man’s sleeve. A scar, small, probably a burn from cooking somewhere else Masaru assumed, was visible as well.

Ichiro noticed his mistake and pulled his sleeve down enough to cover the knife handle. He studied Masaru’s reaction, trying to decide if his secret had been discovered.

“Hataka Masaru-Itamae, I am just here to do a job, hoping to earn respect from my family. If there are enemies within Castle Edo, I know them not.”

Masaru was not sure how to respond. First, the man had bowed when he arrived, an unexpected sign of respect. Now he addressed Masaru with a title – Itamae, meaning head cook. Masaru considered himself a decent cook, but knew for some reason the Shogun kept him employed only because of his mother. Had the ruler desired more fanciful meals, the Shogun would out of necessity need to hire someone else.

“Indeed, Ichiro. In that endeavor we are all employed.”

Masaru pierced the devil’s tongue noodles with his own knife. The soup was done. Placing the lid on the iron pot, Masaru thought about his conversation with the Shogun. Would he advise him of the Samurai in the private kitchen? Is the Shogun even the target of an assassination plot? What if Ichiro was telling the truth?

Masaru opened his pouch and removed his omamori. It was time to make a decision, a choice that would affect him the rest of his life. And more than likely a decision that would directly influence how long his life would be.

My new weekly serial!

After much research, and with more to come I am sure, here is the first installment of my new historical thriller. This story will be loosely based on the true events of the legendary 47 Ronin (Samurai without a master) who, in 1703 Edo Japan exacted revenge for the unjust killing of their master in order to uphold the ethos of the true Samurai.

And of course, food will play an important part in the story. It’s how I roll. (Pun intended, sorry.)

 

The Thirteenth Samurai

By D.J. Lutz

Hataka Masaru stirred the devil’s tongue, and wondered which guest at tonight’s dinner would not live the night.

If the rumors were true at least one head would be sitting atop a pike, waiting to see the morning sun rise over Castle Edo. The cook stopped stirring the noodles and said a quick prayer in hopes it would not be his own head.

Masaru added a few sprigs of scallion to the soup with one hand, the other slowly reaching for the small omamori given to him by the Shinto priest. He knew using the amulet was a tradition for most all Japanese, but the Jesuit missionary residing in Kirishitan Tashiki had warned him against depending on such trinkets. Masaru’s recent conversion to Christianity was a certain death sentence – seppuku by choice or force. He stirred faster, hoping no one had seen him conversing earlier with the sole religious prisoner in Edo.

There was little time to mentally debate the issue of a stranger’s one god to the many Masaru knew. The loud voice of someone coming down the steps into the kitchen took him by surprise. Back into his belt satchel went the rectangular piece of wood. Masaru looked up, hoping the Jesuit’s god would protect him, too.

Two men entered the room. The first bowed to Masaru. The man was a farm worker, perhaps some other basic laborer. Masaru could only judge by the man’s plain clothing and stooped posture. The bow, slow in movement and long in duration, was a display of honor the Shogun’s personal cook was not accustomed to receiving.

Masaru gave a slight bend at the waist to reciprocate. The other man stood tall and strained to look down upon Masaru. This man was no stranger to the cook. Yamato Kira was the highest advisor to the Shogun and it bewildered Masaru as to why a man of such high position would be in the kitchen.

“This is Ichiro. He will be your assistant. The other cooks will also be receiving help, but do not get used to it. The Daiymo will be visiting the castle soon and the Shogun wants the food to be perfect. Ichiro has been hired only for this occasion.”

Masaru gave another quick bow to his new companion. Turning back to Kira, he said “When will the Daiymo arrive? And what shall we serve them?” Unlike many of the courtisans, the Shogun wanted a very simple diet of brown rice and vegetables; Masaru was confused by the sudden change.

Kira did not reply at first, instead he turned about and stepped toward the doorway. As he reached the portal, he slowed his gait, finally stopping to answer. And, as if still bothered by the fact he had to be there at all, the man did not fully turn around to recognize Masaru. He spoke to the stone wall.

“They have already started to arrive. Cook what you normally prepare, just adjust the quantity for more people. There will be twenty Daiymo from western Honshu. They prefer seafood so you will have to go find some. Ichiro will prepare the rice and vegetables while you are gone.”

Masaru was relieved. There had been no mention of the Jesuit; this was a simple matter of the Shogun entertaining the Daiymo again. Masaru knew the Shogun wanted to expand the castle and to do so meant more supplies and labor would be needed from the provincial warlords. Good food would make the tasking less problematic.

There had been rumors of the Daiymo being upset with recent land divisions, particularly the issue of Saito Takeji and how his domain was divided. The Shogun had decreed Takeji guilty of drawing his katana within the walls of the castle, and also of attempting to kill one of the higher classes. After Takeji’s death, his land was divided up among the more favored Daiymo, not the customary neighboring factions.

Masaru noticed a scar on Kira’s left cheek. If only Saito Takeji had been successful, he thought, the Shogun would have one less advisor plotting against him. Masaru could prove none of his theories, and so for now he worried about preparing the meals. The cooking would be easy enough, however, since Masaru’s mother had taught him the basics when she was in charge of the castle’s kitchens. Once his mother had gone with the ancients, Masaru had been given the Shogun’s kitchen as his own domain. Masaru had his place with the Shogun, and he was content as long as Kira stayed away.

“Thank you, Yamato Kira. We will not disappoint the Shogun.”

The words echoed through the damp, stone walls as Kira had already disappeared into the labyrinth of passageways leading to the main floor of Castle Edo. Looking at his new assistant, Masaru asked the newcomer if he knew how to chop vegetables.

Ichiro nodded, then slowly drew a short knife from within his left sleeve. Masaru recognized the blade, a kaiken. Only Samurai used such weapons. Ichiro was not the downtrodden farmer Masaru had envisioned earlier.

Yes, tonight there would be bloodshed at Castle Edo.