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?

♦ ♦ ♦

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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.