Chapter 1: Saké with the Oyamas 大山との酒
This upscale lounge smelled of steamed dumplings; far nicer than the sweaty drinkeries I was used to. But the sound wasn’t right. As much as I hated those compulsive old gamblers, drinking cheap saké just didn’t feel the same without the patter of bakuto rolling bones in the background. Maybe it fit. This drink I was chugging down like rice water was going down too smoothly to be cheap. Luckily the kid was picking up the tab on this one. Just didn’t know it yet.
“Hmph, I’m not sure how you can stand that bile! We’re in one of the finest chashitsu in the Capital, which serves the highest-grade tea around. Can’t you at least pretend to appreciate it?” That buzzing, pre-pubescent and presumptuous voice belonged to none other than my tiny traveling partner. Lucky me.
“It’s too freaking hot out for tea. Why don’t you go get us a couple of rooms?” Any excuse to get the kid out of my face would do. The constant questions and commentary were starting to bite at my nerves, and made me regret taking up this bodyguard business in the first place.
The pout I was so accustomed to seeing planted itself on my companion’s face. The reply was muttered in the whiniest way possible. “Why must I do it? My legs are just as tired as yours!”
The kid had a good point—we’d been doing a ton of walking lately. A few weeks on the road was rough on anyone, especially weak bookish types. I didn’t voice a reply but instead let my eyes do the talking. They convinced the spoiled brat to move along, and I was left to a blissful moment of silence.
The truth of the matter was, if I tried booking lodgings at the renowned Sleeping Duck I’d be out of luck. There would suddenly be no vacancies available for a dirty sellsword who smelled like sweaty dashi broth. In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I didn’t exactly fit the image of a noble samurai.
I wasn’t supposed to be here—the eyes from my fellow patrons did their best to confirm this fact. As pretty as my face was, it was the katana on my lap that had them so perturbed. Yuck, ‘perturbed’? I’d been around these nobles too long, especially the kid. But a job’s a job.
A well-fed man timidly made his way to my table after being goaded by his even better-fed wife. Sweat ran down his forehead to both of his chins. It was odd that he smelled so familiar, when in appearance he was anything but. There wasn’t the slightest hint of bravado in his eyes; his gaze rested on the bare chest my loosely-fit kimono displayed.
As humid as it was in the capital city, he was lucky I still had my robes sashed up.
We were in the middle of the hottest summer in recent memory, which was why I was drinking this saké chilled in the first place. Though you’d be a fool to waste expensive alcohol by burning it—passing up on this dry apple taste and rich cedar aroma was a crime in and of itself.
“Er...you are a samurai, aye?” The phrase was mixed with equal parts fear and skepticism. Oh, and desperation too. You had to be damn desperate to mistake a half-drunk sellsword like me for one of General Hizen’s lapdogs. Those were purebreds. I finished off my cup of chilled bliss before giving a reply.
I bounced the hilt-end of my sheathed katana up with a sudden jerk of my right knee. It flipped well into the air—once, twice, three times before I snatched it. Not a moment too soon either, as it was just about to do a number on an expensive flask of fermented rice. After a couple seconds the pudgy patron’s reflexes kicked in and he stumbled back a few paces.
I liked to think I’d gotten my point across.
“I’m no samurai, though you knew that already. And you’re no Yamato silk-dresser, not with an accent like that. What do you want?” The last thing I had expected was to deal with fellow Southerners in a classy joint like this. Brought back the tastes of my childhood years, and it made me want to gag.
The girthful man wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, yet another tell towards his modest upbringing. I wasn’t sure if I was starting to like him more or less, but I sure wished the kid would hurry up with our rooms.
“P-please keep your voice down, master samurai. I-I mean, the title I meant was...” He fumbled around for the right word. He and I both knew the word he was looking for, he was just too afraid to say it. Ronin.
“...my name is Kin Oyama. My wife and I are here with our child to arrange a marriage with the Akiyama branch family. If you would sit at our table, your presence would bring us great honor.” Kin whispered the plot as if he were a politician trying to usurp his liege lord. His daimyo needn’t worry—the only thing this pretender could displace was a bowl of udon noodles.
The wife held up an orange haori—a formal jacket—and smiled from ear-to-ear. I might have underestimated these Southerners. If nothing else, they had come prepared. The scheme was to dress up a dirty ronin and pass him off as a semi-respectable retainer. A family without powerful hereditary ties, yet had a samurai in their personal employ? That meant wealth, and lots of it.
Honestly this plan might just work. Should I help them?
Compared with hauling the kid all over Hyuga, this job was a breeze. And make no mistake—this wasn’t a favor from one Southerner to another. Down there it was a dog-eat-dog world, and I’m not just talking about the expression. And while this current scenery may sport more cherry blossoms and giggling geishas then I’m used to, my stomach still couldn’t feed itself.
“I’ll play samurai for you, Oyama-dono, but not for free.” My gut growled with anticipation. That smell I’ve been sniffing since I got here was finally going to be mine. “Toss in a double order of dumplings and something to wash it down with.”
He nodded enthusiastically, and I reluctantly put on the orange-colored garment. Oddly enough it fit me perfectly.
He had mentioned a child, but I couldn’t spot the potential suitor anywhere. Unless...aha! Hidden behind the overstuffed roll of carpet that was his wife, a graceful figure sat. Far from being a child, this figure—thankfully—looked nothing like the parents that birthed it. It was the sort of attractive human form that forced my eyes to linger.
She wore an undersized, dangerously low-cut yukata—a summer kimono that didn’t usually show much leg. This silk garment flipped a century’s worth of tradition on its head, and gave me a very pleasant migraine. A white sash tightened around her waist, tempting my hands to grab hold and never release. I was pretty sure there was a cherry blossom design on it too, but my eyes could only focus on the features that were threatening to bust out at the seams.
One thing was certain, any man who sat across from her was one lucky bastard.
I nearly pinched myself for fear that I was dreaming. Fresh dumplings, rich saké and a beautiful woman to enjoy it with. The capital city might not be so bad after all!
I was about to take a seat wherever I wanted when I recalled that members of the noble caste liked to make everything complicated. Trite traditions and an exhaustive amount of ways to disrespect someone were nestled at every corner in high society. I won’t pretend that I knew or cared about half of them—I like to think that I have better ways of wasting my time.
Even so, it was customary for samurai to sit beside their lord for protection. The seat beside the strapping future wife was also open, and that was tempting for its own reasons.
“With looks like yours, it’s hard to imagine having trouble finding a suitor.” I took the seat beside her and make a bit of light conversation. To the untrained ear it might sound as if I was trying to flirt with her, which I assure you wasn’t the case at all. Just trying to calm the bride’s nerves a little. Yeah, that sounds right.
She beamed a tiny little smile that wasn’t like her mother’s at all. A thin upper lip and a larger lower one...where had I seen those before? Pair that with a sharp, down-turned nose...makeup couldn’t hide those foreign qualities. While her parents were markedly from Genfu, this was a different creature entirely.
While I was busy being mystified by her facial features, she thanked me for joining her side. “Thank you for joining us, samurai-san. My parents have sacrificed much to grant me this opportunity. You being by my—our side, it puts their mind at ease.” The words were light and flowed like a breeze, and bared no hint of the homeland she had left behind. Strange...
The collective silence of this odd family was starting to make even me uncomfortable, at least until the dumplings I bargained for arrived. My heart skipped a beat after seeing two plates packed with steaming gyoza placed in front of me like I was an emperor’s son. The geisha poured the first cup of saké , with a fake smile as if I was her favorite customer. She was quick to leave afterwards.
If I hadn’t been entirely sure what the kanji—the fancy written characters—for ‘Akiyama’ were, I was now. Two men wearing green robes had the words littered all over them. They’d even have it written atop their faces if tattoos weren’t decidedly yakuza. They may not have belonged to a crime syndicate, but they didn’t seem to be nobles either.
Oh, and unless the country of Hyuga had grown radically progressive in recent months, these two guys weren’t the parents we were looking for.
“You are the Oyamas, correct? Your daughter is very beautiful.” The lankier one remarked, but his eyes were all over me. I’ll give you one guess as to why. “You have a retainer as well...”
And here I thought my presence would go completely ignored. I knew that look. He was asking himself a question, a question that confirmed what this was. It looked like I had no choice; the pause here meant it was as good a time as any to introduce myself. Unlike everyone else at this table and perhaps in this city, I had no intention of hiding who I was or putting on false airs.
I knew what these two were the moment they walked into the Sleeping Duck. They didn’t slouch on their approach, and walked with their left hands against their belts as if by habit. That was where their weapons usually were. Of course they weren’t there now—no, their jitte were hidden just above their sash in an odd-looking fold.
While the jitte was little more than an iron bar, it sprouted a hook made for catching katana blades. It was also the symbol of law enforcement in Hyuga. For a ronin such as myself, the weapon represented a guaranteed bad time.
I’ve fought and killed my share of thugs and police officers to know there was hardly a difference between them. Both preferred to outnumber you, and neither cared for a fair fight. The question he was thinking to himself earlier was whether or not him and his buddy could take me if it came down to it. The answer was a resounding “No”.
Unlike these police academy dropouts, I came from a far rougher upbringing. The sort of upbringing where you didn’t have a family name. A single name was good enough.
“My name is Manji, and I kill people for a living.”
Kin Oyama intervened to calm the tense atmosphere down a few notches. I could understand that he wanted negotiations to go as smoothly as possible, but he was clueless of what the situation was. It must be nice to be that naive and stupid.
“Good sirs, my name is Kin Oyama. My daughter is anxious to meet the young master Akiyama. Where might he be at?” The nobleman (in appearance anyway) was rudely interrupted by a curt explanation. The type that answered a few questions and prompted a few more.
“Takauji-sama is at his mother’s bedside. Unfortunately our lady has grown gravely ill in recent weeks. We will escort your daughter to the Akiyama estate for a private meeting. It is regrettable, but we ask you two stay here until we bring around another carriage.”
I was so impressed by this tale that I almost felt like clapping. Maybe I was just used to the schemes of bandits and hoodlums—this one was far more crafty and far less violent. And from that understanding expression on the Oyama’s faces, it was far more effective too. Whether this was a kidnapping for ransom or a high-class human trafficking plot would all depend on what the family could pay.
And knowing these Southerners for what they were, they’d be sending their girl right into the slave market. I felt a pair of eyes beside me giving me a glance. The would-be wife’s expression was still difficult for me to figure out, and all that makeup wasn’t helping my efforts either.
Genuine fear snuck out from that pretty face, as it seemed at least one member of this odd-looking family knew what was about to unfold.
Steeling her determination, the graceful figure arose with a sort of nobility that was difficult to put into words. I wasn’t sure if it was the saké or something else, but I was getting an uncomfortable feeling in my chest. The sort of feeling a man gets before he’s about to do something stupid.
As soon as I was up off the tatami mat, the two Akiyama swindlers were already pleading for me to sit back down. The lanky one even had a hand against his stomach, to make sure his iron club was still there. Never a bad thing to check before a fight.
“You, retainer, needn’t worry. We will protect her with our lives. Remain here until the second carriage arrives.”
He should not have said that. If there was one thing dirty ronin like me couldn’t stand, it was taking orders.
Using my blade would’ve turned this fight into a joke, so I decided to make it more fun. With a kick that would’ve made a donkey jealous I bashed my sandaled foot up against Oyama’s table. It skidded into the knees of the unfortunate bastards; the sound of wood and bone colliding echoed across the lounge. It was an unpleasant crunch soon hidden beneath wails of agony.
I moved in for my next attack without hesitation. The stockier thug was hunched over, and didn’t have time to react as I reached over the table to grab the collar-folds of his kimono. Usually I’d knee my opponent in the face, but I had a better idea. I yanked his head down onto the hardwood. Blood squished out onto the table after what had to be a broken nose and then some.
The other crooked cop had regained his senses, and held his jitte out horizontally in the traditional style. His other hand hovered about like a drugged-up wasp, which I could only guess was an effort to distract me. What every vagabond needed to know about fighting police was simple—every style in their handbooks was reactionary. This mentality bled into their minds, making them slower and less-effective fighters.
Action is faster than reaction. I proved it by bringing my still-sheathed katana down overhead like a chump. I could even see the anticipation in his eyes as he brought his jitte up to counter the blow. Except I wasn’t a chump, and I quickly recoiled my weapon as his arrived to parry thin air. With a twist in my shoulders the scabbard whipped across his face, connecting solidly with his jaw. The jolt of the blow ran up my arms as a painful throb, but that was next to nothing compared to what he was feeling.
Or wasn’t feeling, as he laid unconscious several feet away. The bottom half of his face was contorted in a very painful looking position. I guess I won.
The foreign bride-to-be slapped her hands together twice in succession. For a second I thought she was applauding me, but that was before a group of a dozen patrons of the Sleeping Duck jumped to arrest and remove the Akiyama goons. Typical tea-drinkers were nowhere near that coordinated, and I found myself getting real sick of not knowing what was going on.
“You are very...effective at what you do, Manji-san. Allow me to thank you for your aid in this affair.”
Affair? Just what had I gotten myself roped into? This all felt like one bad kabuki act, where everyone was in on the joke but me. I made certain to add this experience to the list of reasons why I despised Yamato. It was time to get some answers.
“So I take it you’re still single, then?”
I gave her a sly smile. Yeah, she fooled me and ruined my lazy afternoon of drinking, but there was a silver lining to all this. I still had a chance at this exotic-looking babe. Wish I knew her name though.
My forwardness is usually something members of the noble class just can’t handle, and this fine looking specimen was no exception. Red blushed out on those smooth cheeks, but unfortunately this fish wasn’t taking the bait. Didn’t expect it to either—catches like this one never came easy.
“I-I don’t see how that is relevant. Thank you for helping us during this internal investigation, and for potentially ending a series of high-profile abductions.”
Great, a happy ending. The only warm, fuzzy feeling I was getting inside was the last bit of my buzz dying away. If she was expecting me to smile and laugh off being manipulated—and even worse, unpaid—then...whatever, I needed to check up on the kid.
The gang of plainly-clothed ninja had already extracted the two culprits, and the lounge at the Sleeping Duck returned to normal almost immediately. The blood spatters on the table were already wiped clean, evidence of my actions erased as if they never happened.
Unsettling. I was on my way out when I get a name and a healthy dose of foreshadowing.
“My name is Toshie. I look forward to working with you again soon, samurai-san.”