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?

♦ ♦ ♦

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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.

Cuban Style Black Beans

Cuban style Black Beans

Cuban style Black Beans

The problem with being a writer is that writing mandates sedentary activity. Is that an oxymoron? If you think about it, even as active as he was, Hemingway couldn’t type while watching out for stray bulls skulking around the streets of Pamplona, could he?

It’s worse for those of us who write about food.

If I’m writing, I’m sitting. If I’m researching, I’m eating. Thus the problem.

As I keep working on the revisions for The Apple Pie Alibi, a culinary-based, cozy mystery using the locked room murder format (in case you had forgotten,) I have started to read a new book – Eat to Live, written by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. More on the book later, but I also had Dr. Fuhrman’s accompanying cookbook of the same title. And with a church pot luck today, I needed to cook something.

Hmm. Need to cook something. Brand new cookbook. You get the picture.

This is my version of Cuban style black beans. It is vegetarian friendly; and slightly different than the recipe found in the book. The published recipe is fine, I’m sure. I just didn’t have all of the ingredients, so I had to make do with what I had.

Place the following into a large crock pot / slow cooker:

3 large cans of cooked black beans, drained.

1 cup water

2 fresh tomatoes, seeded and rough chopped

1 large sweet onion, peeled and diced

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

2 cloves of garlic, pressed (or finely minced if you haven’t a garlic press)

1 Tablespoon of cumin

1 Tablespoon of dehydrated cilantro (use a few sprigs of fresh cilantro if you can get them. It’s out of season on my back porch right now.)

1 teaspoon of black pepper

1 good slosh of sherry vinegar, about a shot glass’ worth

Mix well, cover, and cook on low heat for at least 8 hours. Stir occasionally.

Need more heat? Add a tablespoon of cayenne pepper or jerk seasoning. Or both.

Need meat? Add a cup of diced ham. Maybe some chopped pineapple, too; although that has nothing to do with meat. It just might taste good.

Enjoy!

(Normally this would pair well with a Cuba Libre, but given our event was a church luncheon, iced tea worked very well instead.)

 

 

 

The Process of Writing

sometimes involves research; it always involves reading. So if you have been wondering where I have been lately, you’re correct – I’ve been in Mexico.

Mexico?

Yes, that Mexico. I had been finding the piles of snow very distracting, so thanks to some very good friends with a spare room in their condo, we took a week off from the real jobs and spent the past week enjoying margaritas on the beach as house guests two blocks away from the beach in Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun.

In addition to trying my skill at napping in a hammock (I do this well once in, but getting out is another story,) I found time to read a few more chapters of Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, a great textbook on the structure of the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey.

I couldn’t ignore my culinary research, so each day was spent searching out local or regional cuisine. And chocolate. As for the former, I’m talking Mayan specialties like Huarache de Nopal, a fabulous plate of nopal cactus smothered with mushrooms, squash blossoms, spinach, chaya and panela cheese.  The latter? Homemade chocolate mousse; excellent cake, petit fours galore and even modern versions of traditional Mayan chocolate drinks. For those who know me, we didn’t hit the Starbucks for a Cafe Mocha until the last day. That should tell you something about the variety of food and drink available in the little beach town. Recipes will be posted soon enough.

The novel? It has been getting some good reviews amongst the peer group. I am now drafting a second version, telling the story in first person instead of third. The first chapter has been met with much more enthusiasm. Is this a good move? Who knows. In the end I may have two full versions of the same story. But that’s okay. It’s all part of the process of writing.

I hope your writing is on track and where you want it to be. If not, maybe you need a “research trip.” May I suggest a little town on the Mexican Riviera? The sunrise is something to behold!

Sunrise at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Sunrise at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

Of French Fries, Milk Shakes & Peer Reviews

Just have time for a quick note. The snow is starting to fall and before you know it, we’ll be stuck in the house, watching the news on the television as reporters comment on the crazy drivers trying to negotiate slick roadways. I can only imagine the zombie apocalypse that will occur if we receive more than the expected 6 – 8 inches of snow.

Yup. We in coastal Virginia are wimps when it comes to snow.

Anyhow, took a big step in my venture as a writer. As some of you know, I participated as a beta tester for Penguin’s Book Country (their answer to Amazon’s CreateSpace.)  After some initial angst between Book Country (them) and writers (us) it looks like things have evened out and more writers are starting to use the site. The site administrator does an excellent job, as well, with regard to tech support and moderating the site in general. I speak from experience. You don’t need to know the gory details, just know that it pays to read the directions sometimes.

I have just successfully posted my Nanowrimo novel, The Apple Pie Alibi, into Book Country for peer review. It’s like asking for other writers to be your beta readers. Was this a good idea? Not sure yet. I know what “I” think the book needs, but I am interested to see if others think the same – or if I totally missed something.

Are we to the point of indie-publishing yet?

No. But we have made a pretty big step in that direction. Putting your words out for peer review is like dipping French fries into a milk shake. At face value, one would ask – why? What good could possibly come from this? But for those who step out there, away from the comfortable norms of food separation, you take the risk and reap the reward – in this case enjoying the entire sweet & salty dance on your taste buds. Next time you post your novel for peer review, go visit a [insert name of nutritionally suspect, fast food establishment here] and order a large fry and a vanilla shake. Live like the snow won’t stop falling. And hold the ketchup.

It’s not a just dessert; it is a just reward!