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.

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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.

 

 

Why wait until November?

Ilha da Queimada Grande - Itanhaém2

Ilha da Queimada Grande – Itanhaém2 (Photo credit: Prefeitura Municipal de Itanhaém)

Nanowrimo is a 50,000 word writer’s slogfest, replete with wandering plots, bleary eyes and certainly gallons upon gallons of coffee. And it is one of the most insane fun things a new writer can attempt. All for the want of a completed draft manuscript and a little, albeit colorful icon you can place on your blog somewhere. I’ve tried Nano three times, two of them ending successfully.

But it’s not November, yes?

Why wait? I have done the requisite character studies, outlined the basic plot lines. There are thousands of little tidbits of information rattling around my brain, just waiting to be deployed onto the pages of the next best-seller.  The Brazilian island of Queimada Grande had more than the world’s only colony of golden lancehead pit vipers, it was also the hidden sanctuary of Miss Roya Abassi, the Persion double agent who would bring the Iranian fundamentalists to their knees once and for all, but not for evening prayers…

And that’s not even the first line.

Here we go: 1,500 words a day. And look, the coffee is cool enough to drink now.

Keep writing.

 

Dear NSA…

Some people are upset with the revelation that the National Security Agency has been snooping on phone records, internet searches, text messages, et al. Not me. Nope. I think it is great! I mean, really – think of the job creation here. Somewhere in a nondescript red brick warehouse in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area there are probably hundreds of analysts pouring over my internet searches about Iranian intel units, spy operations throughout history, even my quest for the best use of habanero chili peppers. Hopefully they won’t get too bored. And then there are the guys in suits, driving the big black SUVs, people I am sure are following me. Of course, I work in an office park, so perhaps they are just other businessmen on their way to the office, but…

Not that I am paranoid, but I think it may just be the regular coffee I drank this morning by mistake. Didn’t I ask for decaf? Maybe not.

Anyway – for all you secret squirrels and anyone else wanting to risk being put on a list following this blog – rejoice in the fact I have a decent outline of the first two acts of my current thriller: The Mistress. What this means to me is that I am tracking well to finish the outline by Friday, meaning I can start the Nanowrimo slogfest very, very soon!

But first, I need to pack up my gear and leave the coffeehouse pronto. A guy wearing sunglasses just walked in. (I know, living near the beach – who wears sunglasses?)

Where do you start?

English: penulis = writer

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At dinner last night I learned one of our companions was also a novice writer. Now, as you probably recall, I am not exactly the expert in the field of literature but people know I’ve done research in lieu of formal education. And I read. A lot. So when presented with a query on being a writer, I do what most professionals do – I make up an answer give my personal thoughts on the matter, based on what people far more experienced than I have learned through years of trial and error.

So before the maitre d’ said “dis way, pliz,” the question came up as to how I go about structuring my story, in other words: how do I go about getting started?

A great question, one in which entire books have been written. And the truth is – you start where you want to start. The tricky part is determining if your starting point is the best place for your reader to start. Aha! Like choosing which doughnuts to fill out your random dozen, this could be a writer’s most vexing roadblock.

I have always been a big fan of the “hero’s journey” format. The Star Wars tri-trilogy, Lord of the Rings, the beloved Harry Potter, and much from mythology – they all use the almost never-ending structure to tell a way too long grand story. My very first novel, “Old Pecos and the Cursed Gold” was a hero’s journey. My daughter published it for me; the one printed copy is on my bookshelf, reminding me how far I have come. With luck, you will never read it.

Old Pecos was written as part of a Nanowrimo slog. I was unemployed at the time and had writing time to spare but not much education, formal or otherwise to help me produce a decent read. Since then I have read books (though not as many as planned – my unread pile keeps growing) and have stalked become acquainted with with many professional authors, agents and publishers. I have attended conferences, taken online classes on writing, and follow numerous blogs. On occasion, I even go to the (gasp) bookstore and read / buy industry news, such as Writer’s Digest. (I know, I can get the same stuff online, but I still like the actual feel of paper. Call me a techno geek with stubborn affection for the old ways.)

What have I gained from all of this work? It comes down to In Medias Res or basically, in the middle of [the story.] In my new novel, an espionage thriller titled “The Mistress,” the story begins with the protagonist being unjustly accused of causing his squad members to die while they were on a dangerous mission in Iraq. A ton of great back story here, BUT the actual novel starts much later. The protagonist is already out of the Marine Corps, the antagonist has gone on to bigger and not-so-better places higher in the government. There is a new conflict – in this case: Iranian agents have stolen a CIA drone, forcing the protagonist to set aside his mistrust of the government in order to save us all from nuclear war.

My back story could probably fill out three chapters, but you – the reader – would be end up wondering “Is this the story?” followed by “What “is” this story?” and you would eventually put down the book and ask yourself “Where do we want to eat tonight?”

Disaster!

I’d go on, but let me refer you to the professionals. I am sure WD has plenty of good stuff on where to start, just follow their link and start perusing. For a more one to one interaction, join an on-line writing community. My preference is the WANA “tribe.” In fact, WANA creator Kristen Lamb has recently posted a great article on In Medias Res. And she uses the Star Wars analogy. Could it get any better? Check it out – and remember, you can’t go wrong with a dozen chocolate covered doughnuts in your variety pack!

 

 

 

Update on The Mistress

Just have time for a quick update on the work in progress, my military/political/espionage thriller, working title: The Mistress. The basic story arc – done. Protagonist character sketch – done, although I am trying different names right now. Currently he is named Blackie Sherrod, but that will probably change, since there actually “is” a Blackie Sherrod. The main antagonist – Cedric Conway – his character sketch is done, as well. Like all bad guys in thrillers, he ends up in a much different strata of life than when he started. Can one really be an “Assistant Plenipotentiary (Facilities) of Requisitions?” I think he will be the guy who counts the rolls of toilet paper in the supply closet at the end of each day. A suitable ending for a sniveling career politician, me thinks.

A few more character sketches to go, then it’s off to the races, Nanowrimo style.

Special thanks to all those who have visited the blog recently. I try to find time on the weekends to visit everyone, if just to say thanks. And remember, I’m not published and there may be a reason for it!

That’ll (sic) change, assuming I get this novel onto “paper.”

Have an awesome day, writers!

Politicians, Writers and Morals – oh, my…

Balance

Fiction and Truth - Balanced? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As fiction writers, we tend to think we can write anything without too much care. I mean, really, we are making it all up, right? However, it helps to check our facts on occasion, as I discovered the other day when I mislabeled the RCMP. A kind reader caught the error and let me know about it in a very gracious way (thanks btw!)  Of course, we need to stay away from libel issues, too. Getting too personal in our writing is a slippery slope and I, frankly, don’t have the money for bail, let alone a decent solicitor.

Here in the States, we are in the throes of an election year. In countless commercials, facts are twisted, statements are taken out of context, and some things are probably outright invented, all in the name of proving one candidate is good and the other evil. Who writes these commercials? And how is this different from my concerns about truth and accuracy?

So what responsibility do we have, as fiction writers at least, in portraying our characters in a truthful way? Let me explain. In Witt Kepler, the main character is an alcohol-fueled, nicotine addicted private detective. His female acquaintance makes her living as a prostitute. Another character’s sexual orientation will cause misunderstanding and personal turmoil. And these are just the good guys.

While it would be easy to play off the addictions and such using stereotypes, is this really, morally, what we as writers should be doing?

I think exploring the issues  by seeing how the characters deal with their problems will only enhance the characterization. How many of my readers have had problems with alcohol or cigarettes? Or know someone who has had those problems? While I do not have first hand experience with the sex trade industry, I have it on good authority that it is an awful place to find oneself, with brutality, inhumanity and hopelessness at every turn. Is it fair, or more accurately stated, morally correct to ignore these issues in my “fiction” writing?

Heavy subjects for a Saturday night, but it has been a heavy kind of week.

What think you?