Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blood Drinker: Chapter 10-1

At last we reach the third act of my mystical Japanese drama. Amaya and Yoshio have reached Osaka and seen the killer Ryunosuke at work there, though his whereabouts and motives still remain shrouded in mystery. Note: I realized that I used the name "Shiro" twice in the total narrative. I have changed the name of the second Shiro (the nephew of Daiki) to Shigeo. This edit has not been done on previous installments as of yet.

Previous installments can be found on the fiction page above or by clicking here. Thanks, as always, for reading. Don't forget to share if you liked it, and return on Thursday for the second half of chapter 10.

<<Previous: Chapter 9-2


Chapter 10

“How do you like your new clothes, Yoshi?” Amaya smiled at her retainer, who fussed with the knot on his obi by the window.
“A little oversized,” Yoshio said. He straightened the light mantle on his shoulders, which gave his lean body a long taper. “Which is in many ways good. It allows freedom of movement, and these leggings will obscure my foot movements for an opponent.” Yoshio tugged at the loose blue umanori[1] pants, which hung in stiff pleats to the tops of his feet. “However, this outfit will give an enemy more ways to grab and throw me, and I risk getting it caught on some piece of the d├ęcor should I be forced to draw my sword indoors.”
Amaya laughed as she walked over to the window and ran her hands over the cloth on Yoshio’s shoulders. “Ever thinking of utility. That is my Yoshi.”
“What else should I think of?”
“Do you like the way it looks?” Amaya said, opening her arms and displaying the long, hanging sleeves of her two-cloth kimono. The pure white silk shimmered in the sunlight from the window, and the pink pattern of the obi and the inner folds of the kimono stood out brightly. Her wide obi was snug, making her already small waist seem tiny.
“I like the way yours looks,” Yoshio said.
Amaya laughed again. “What about yours?”
Yoshio looked down. “I suppose it will do.”
“What about comfort?” Amaya said.
“I said it was loose.” Yoshio tugged on a sleeve. “See?”
“Yes, but does that mean comfortable?” Amaya walked back to the futon and tucked her katana away behind pillows and blankets.
“What else would it mean?”
“My dear Yoshi,” Amaya said, looking back to Yoshio as she tucked her tanto away in the folds of her white and pink kimono. “I will never tire of you.”
Yoshio frowned. “What does that mean?”
Amaya gave him a subtle smile, then sighed. “Let’s go. I do not want to make this worse than it already will be by being late.”
Yoshio nodded. He walked to Amaya’s low table and picked up the scroll he had found at their door upon returning in the early morning. He un-rolled it and looked at it again. It was written in beautiful black script, with flowing lines and perfect brush strokes.
“What is it?” Amaya said, standing by the door.
“I just didn’t get a good look at Masaki’s note when we arrived.”
“What do you see now, in the daylight?”
“It is professionally scripted,” Yoshio said.
“Many nobles are taught well in the arts,” Amaya said, moving to look at the scroll herself. She traced her finger along the well- painted and perfectly black strokes. “But you are right.”
“He means to impress you,” Yoshio said, frowning.
“He does,” Amaya said, “but he has already impressed upon me his cruelty and stubbornness. Tea and entertainment will do no more to lighten my opinion of him than inviting us to such with pretty letters. You worry about me often, Yoshi. You do not need to worry about me being wooed by the likes of Shiba Masaki.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were aware of his intentions.”
“I am. And yours.”
“Amaya, my only intention-”
“Let’s go,” Amaya said. “I meant it about not being late.”
“Shall we check on Sengo? He was not well last night.”
“He is a grown man, Yoshi. Stop stalling.” With that, Amaya slid open the door. Yoshio grumbled and then followed her out.
Amaya walked slowly and carefully beside Yoshio, aware of her posture and the position of her hands. The roofed walkway, paved with a simple pattern of flat cobles as it passed through carefully arranged gardens, gave both of them a view of the estate to which Masaki had invited them. Faded grey roof tiles, the sign of an old and respected dwelling, hung above open foyers that were useful only by the sea. The servant that greeted them at the door hurried a few steps ahead, then waited at an intersection, unwilling to break etiquette by requesting a faster pace.
“How am I supposed to walk?” Yoshio whispered, seeing Amaya’s careful and silent steps.
“Just the way you do, my husband,” Amaya said in a hushed voice. “It is the job of women to look formal, regal, and beautiful, and the job of men to admire them.”
“I don’t quite know how to act.”
“Act like yourself. You are more refined and honorable than most nobles.” She looked over at him with a smile. “Kuramasa Kuro is more the standard than the exception.”
“Furukawa and Lord Asano are very refined,” Yoshio said.
“They are,” Amaya said. “Now, just be yourself, and we will be quite a fitting couple.”
They approached the servant. He was a bent old man wearing grey, who forced a smile as they approached then gestured for them to proceed down another walkway. Yoshio and Amaya followed him between two buildings spanned with a roof and down a set of steps. They approached a shaded platform, slightly uplifted from the surrounding pavement. The servant gestured to it. A young samurai stood nearby, his hand on the hilt of his katana. Yoshio eyed him as they walked past into the shaded kiosk.
 A middle-aged man wearing a grey and white striped hakama below a decorated kimono turned about as they entered. He looked at the pair and raised his eyebrows. Wrinkles set themselves into his face as he looked at Yoshio and frowned.
“Masaki-sama,” Amaya said. “It is good to see you again.” She bowed, and Yoshio followed her with the same motion. “This is my husband, Taoka Yoshio.”
“I am glad you could make it, Amaya-san” Masaki said, turning away. He looked out past the shaded kiosk to a wide empty clearing, boxed in by walkways and sitting areas roofed with similar, though clearly much newer, tiles. “And Yoshio-san. I feared you might have to decline, given the commotion of last night.” He gestured for her to sit at a pillow that lay on the ground, which was itself covered in a white cloth.
“So you have heard.” Amaya set herself down, placing her shins on the pillow and taking a feminine pose. She faced herself slightly toward her host and looked out to the empty courtyard to her left. A small tree grew in each corner, but otherwise it was bare, the floor covered with sand bleached nearly to white. “I suppose the embarrassment of my family’s tragedy has not remained discreet.”
Yoshio looked around as he sat down to Amaya’s right. Several groups of people ambled by on the walkways or sat below the running roof, almost all of them samurai. A few rich merchants, likely guests of the estate, sat in a sunny corner with their wives fanning them. Amaya’s eyes remained pointed down, away from Masaki.
Once they were seated, Masaki sat himself down, facing them at a slight angle. “You do not need to fear shame here, Amaya-san,” he said. “It is not your shame. Undoubtedly Daiki’s nephew had fallen in with a bad lot.”
“Undoubtedly,” Amaya said. “Still, it is not the sort of thing you expect when you are invited to tea under the lucky moon.”
Hmn,” Masaki said. “What makes it lucky, eh? I’ve heard of no ceremonies scheduled by the priests.”
“It was Daiki’s belief, Masaki-sama,” Amaya said. “You would have to ask him.”
“Perhaps I shall,” Masaki said. “He is a distant relative of mine as well.”
“I don’t think you shall get very far,” Yoshio said. “If his manner last night was any indication.” Yoshio met Masaki’s hard eyes, and for a tense moment, they stared, neither of them moving or looking away. Amaya continued to stare downward.
“No?” Masaki said.
Yoshio shook his head. “He will only speak of the killer.”
“Perhaps I should wish to speak to him of the killer,” Masaki said. “I could send a retainer to deal with him.” He looked to Amaya. “For the sake of honor.”
“It is unnecessary,” Amaya said. “For a long time we have been wary of Shigeo. It seems now it was for good reason.”
“Are you sure?” Masaki continued, “I have just hired a new, highly skilled retainer from the Kenjitsu-no-Toda Dojo. He is the finest I have seen.”
Yoshio’s heart leapt at the thought of a fellow student of Toda Yuu, but he held himself back and remained still. “A good find.”
“Good to see Amaya-san has not married a man without his martial wits.”
Yoshio nodded slightly. “Yes, but I must admit a touch of arrogance. I myself attained the rank of master there, and spent many winters training and teaching. However, with my experience I can attest to the high standards of Toda Yuu outside of my ego. I may have even given your retainer his initial rounds with the blade. Where is he? I have important news that may interest him.”
“You were an instructor there, eh?” Masaki said. He cast an eye to Amaya. “I did not imagine that Lady Asano Amaya would be married to one of her father’s retainers.”
“Actually, Masaki-sama,” Amaya said, “Yoshio was a retainer from a neighboring lord. He has earned the respect of my father through his honorable deeds, and more importantly, we had a great deal of respect for each other. Marriage was a good arrangement for us both.”
“So it was your choice,” Masaki said. “I wish you would have announced it. I would have sent a fitting gift to your father.”
“It was recent,” Amaya said. “We wanted to wait until after my travels to announce it formally. For you, though, consider my apologies for introducing you without a formal announcement first.”
“It is no matter, Amaya-san,” Masaki said. “As long as you would not be offended by a delay in your gift. What has brought you to Osaka? Wait-” Masaki leaned forward as a hush settled over the other people in attendance, virtually all of them sitting under the low roof that surrounded the courtyard. “The entertainment is about to begin.”
“What is it?” Amaya said, suspecting an answer she did not want.
A man stood in the center of the courtyard, wearing a loose-fitting kimono and hakama, with a single sword in his belt. He was young, not more than twenty, and thin.
“That is Tamotsu, a retainer for the Hosokawa clan,” Masaki whispered. “Soon Hayato, from my own clan, will enter.”
“A duel?” Amaya said.
“Yes!” Masaki hissed. “These two have insulted the house of the other, and myself and Hosokawa Ichiro have agreed that this duel will seek the peace between us.”
“Are there stakes?” Yoshio asked.
“Of sorts,” Masaki said quietly. “In Kyoto there was a disagreement about my father’s daughter and who she should marry.”
Amaya’s face remained placid, but subtly she reached over and grasped Yoshio’s hand tightly. Yoshio turned to look at first, but then held his head straight, seeing that Masaki’s attention was bent to the center of the courtyard.
Another man stepped out who wore white and black. Tucked into a thin black belt striped with white was a decorated katana, with florid engraving and a carved handle. He looked to be thirty, with deep-set eyes that held a perpetual frown above them. Amaya squeezed Yoshio’s hand.
The two men bowed to each other, then turned and bowed to opposite ends of the rectangular courtyard. The older of the two, Hayato, bowed to Masaki, while the younger, Tamotsu, bowed to an aged samurai who reclined on the other side in a similar kiosk. An old man wearing the letters on his belt of a dojo sensei stepped to the center. He turned around and looked to the people on the edges.
“So honor demands. Do not interfere until blood or quarter,” he said loudly. He looked to Masaki, who nodded, then to the man on the other side, who did the same.
Tense silence filled the assembly as each man dropped to a bent knee stance while holding the handles of their katana in their right hand and their sayas in their left.
“An ideal contest,” Masaki said.
“Hardly,” Yoshio said. “What I see is a student facing a master. This will not end well for the boy.”
“How so?” Masaki said.
“The youth holds his weight wrong, for one,” Yoshio said. “He leans back. He focuses on the hands of the older, not the feet, and so will be late to defend against a strike.”
“You learned this approach from Toda?”
“You can learn this from any teacher, Masaki-sama. This boy is green. I bet he has not yet trained five winters.”
“Five winters is green to you?” Masaki looked to Yoshio, who met his gaze for a moment.
“In the art of kenjitsu, it takes time to achieve great skill,” Yoshio said. He sighed. “This is a terrible waste of a warrior’s potential.”
“I suppose it bodes well for me, then,” Masaki said.
In the center, movement broke the long, tense stand-off, but the strike came not from the older and more experienced Hayato, but from the younger Tamotsu, who drew his sword in a well-practiced cut. Hayato leapt back from the blow, causing Tamotsu to cut air in an audible whistle. In the dodge Hayato drew his own sword and stepped back. The two men inched closer with their swords facing each other.
“Interesting,” Masaki said, leaning forward. “This fight is already longer than you predicted, eh?”
“Your fighter is very experienced,” Yoshio said, “and has not underestimated his opponent at all. He knows it is better to enter combat with a drawn sword, and so threw away his draw-cut to ready himself for a battle.”
Hayato stepped left, then right, then struck with a fast overhead cut. Tamotsu raised his sword and deflected the cut to his left, then stepped forward with the counter. Before his cut could come, Hayato put his open left hand on the boy’s chest and shoved him backward. Tamotsu fell onto his back and then quickly rolled the side, dodging another strike from Hayato. The boy pushed himself quickly back up onto his feet.
Masaki cast an eye to Yoshio. “Dirty?”
Yoshio looked back at him. “All is fair in war, they say. Kenjitsu is an art of war; once the fight begins there are no techniques more honorable than others.”
Masaki nodded. “You are a true warrior, Yoshio-san. I can see why Amaya would choose you knowing you as such.”
Yoshio frowned, and looked at Amaya, whose dark eyes trembled, unfocused on the scene.
In the courtyard, Tamotsu pressed an attack, slashing first from the side and then changing directions to cut upward. Both strikes were parried by Hayato as he stepped back. Tamotsu cut with a long sweep from over his shoulder. Hayato dodged. Tamotsu followed with an upward cut, which Hayato parried and then stepped in for a killing thrust. At the last moment, Tamotsu leaned to his right and Hayato’s katana pierced his clothes. They tore and ripped as the boy fell to the ground and rolled away. Hayato flung his sword in the air, sending bits of cloth to the ground.
Tamotsu stood, panting. A red spot grew on his tattered kimono.
“Blood. It is over, then,” Yoshio said. He realized Amaya was gripping his hand very hard. He could feel her heart racing. “Not so much of a waste.”
The old sensei stepped back in and looked to each side. Masaki shook his head, first to the sensei, then to Hayato.
“There is no need to go further, lord,” Yoshio said. “Please, let this end honorably and with life.”
Tamotsu held up his sword again, ready for a final confrontation.
“But there is need, Yoshio-san,” Masaki said. “There is. Things must be as they truly are.” He smiled sickly. “In this duel as in all other truths. For you see, I know that Amaya knows you to be a great warrior,”
He paused as swords crossed again, Tamotsu desperately deflecting a rain of blows from Hayato on his weakened side. Tomotsu held on and dodged left, leaving Hayato swiping at air. The older man took a wide step with his missed attack and seemed to lose balance. Tomotsu took the opportunity, and thrust his katana at Hayato, his full weight behind it in a killing thrust.
Masaki continued speaking, “But, Yoshio, does Amaya know the truth? Does she know your wife sleeps with a fat Daimyo in Kyoto?”
Yoshio wanted desperately to meet the eyes of Masaki, but in the arena the killing blow was at hand. Tamotsu’s well-timed and well-placed thrust flew through nothing but air. Hayato’s lost balance was but a feint, and he shifted around the youth’s sword as if water, grabbing Tamotsu’s arms and pulling him forward. Hayato’s own katana, which he held in his right hand and which lay against his left leg, was suddenly propelled up with a lift of his thigh. The edge bit into Tamotsu’s midsection.
The youth grunted with the impact. Hayato stepped forward, drawing the entire length of his katana through Tamotsu’s abdomen. Blood sprayed, then poured onto the ground as a flood. Tamotsu collapsed in agony.
“End it!” Yoshio shouted.
Hayato looked over to him and met his eyes, then stepped to Tamotsu and cut off the boy’s head, ending his suffering. He shook the blood from his sword and returned it to its saya, looked to Masaki, and then bowed.

More to come on Thursday!

[1] A garment worn over a kimono. It may be divided like pant legs or of one long piece like a kilt. It is part of the Hakama, or traditional male dress.

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