Blood Drinker: Chapter 16-2

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Sesshu, C. 1501-1507

 

“This will be an excellent set of swords,” Sengo said. The hammer rang loudly as it fell upon the glowing sheet of steel. A smile split Sengo’s face as he worked away at it. “Flip it.”

Yoshio complied, flipping over the steel sheet. “How do you know?”

“The bright sparks, the hard feel beneath the hammerhead… but mostly the sound it makes when hit,” Sengo said. “It is like a melody to me. When the sword rings like a deadly bell, you have succeeded in giving the steel its one true spirit. Again.”

Yoshio complied, and flipped the steel over again. The ringing continued. He watched Muramasa slowly work the steel lengthwise just as he had before, making a long, continuous sheet that hinted at a sword blade between its many times in the forge. When this was complete the smith would take it, after all the work of flattening and elongating the shape, and fold it back on itself. Then he would begin the process again.

“It looks much the same,” Amaya said. She stood on the wooded deck of the audience house, her empty bag thrown around her shoulders.

“And so it is,” Sengo said. “The process is slow, but necessary.”

Amaya had come to watch for a while in the morning, painting a scene of it, but as the work continued and she finished the details of the painting Yoshio could see boredom take her, and she left with Emi to attend to the business of the shrine.

“I will be heading to town with Emi for some fresh vittles,” she said. “Do you need anything?”

“Some flux,” Sengo said. “Doesn’t have to be good. Even rosin, something like that will do.”

“I don’t know where to find flux,” she said.

“Then don’t worry about it,” Sengo said. “I’ll fetch some more at some other time. I’ll still have another day of folding this steel before I’ll need it for the next piece.”

“Can you wait until we are finished?” Yoshio said. “I am still hesitant to let you walk without guard.”

“I can care for myself, but I know that you will worry. I’ll tell Emi to wait an hour,” Amaya said.

Yoshio nodded, then watched as she turned and walked back to the open door of the house. He let himself feel desire as he watched the subtle motion of her hips in the summer kimono. It felt strange to allow the thought, but also exciting. He knew the thought was dangerous, but everything was dangerous now.

“Eyes on the steel, lad,” Sengo said. Yoshio snapped his head back and flipped the metal over with the tongs.

Painting is a good avocation for Amaya, Yoshio thought as the hammer fell. Different every time. It is quiet and dignified, a perfect pursuit for a high-standing lady, and excellent for focus and meditation, but it also gives her the constant change she needs. Yoshio found himself thinking on this as the notes of the steel washed over him., wondering about Amaya’s future happiness for the first time since he had met her.

*

Most honorable and magnanimous Shogun Ashikaga Yoshitane,

 

I hope midsummer greets you well, finding health and prosperity in the warmth and life of the season.

 

I would like to thank you for receiving my family’s invitation to enjoy the summer festival celebrating Tenjin here on Osaka bay. I believe the Tenabata star festival is also spectacular, should your imminence find his schedule free enough, and the sea weather still agreeable, to reside in the bay for an additional week.

 

Let me also offer my deepest condolences for the regrettable death of your son Keiji. It has come to my attention that he was assassinated the same night as Shigeo, the nephew of our mutual relative Minamoto Daiki, whom I was visiting. I am sorry that my own intrigue has prevented me from seeing to the arrangements of your son and preparing for your most noble reception. I hope that the man responsible for his death will be rooted out and justice will be done to him, so that Keiji’s spirit may be free to pursue its next path. My retainer and I have been staying near a shrine above Sakai, praying nightly for the resolution of both of our unlucky and malicious situations.

 

Undoubtedly you have been in friendly communication with Shiba Masaki and it has come to your attention that there is conflict between us. This is true. I will not dare to plead my side of the case, but will instead invite you to witness the duel between my retainer and Masaki’s chosen retainer, the victory deciding the outcome of honor for both of us. If the kami and ancestors see fit to award the triumph to me , I will be happy to plead my case to you then, knowing full well that you will understand it to be the truth, and knowing that your highness needs not, in these troubled times, to condescend to such conflicts.

 

I would like to humbly request an audience with you, not as a matter of business, but as friends and relatives.

 

Please give my regards to your wife, and I humbly await your reply. May you, as I, find pleasure in the simple truths of life that shine amid the darkness of the times.

 

Your vassal and servant,

 

Asano Amaya

 

“I do not know what opinion I should give on this,” Yoshio said, examining the scroll’s long vertical lines. “I think the calligraphy is beautiful, but I do not know what goes into writing a letter to the shogun.”

“Does the explanation seem plausible?” Amaya said.

“Which one?”

“Any of them.”

“Well,” Yoshio said, glancing over the letter again. “I find it a bit odd that you express hope that Keiji’s killer will be rooted out and punished, considering I am the man who killed him.”

“I said I hope justice will be done to him,” Amaya said. “And justice unto you would be a reward of comfort and peace, though I don’t quite know what you would do with comfort and peace.”

Yoshio smirked. “I like that you do not reveal the cause of the duel. It feigns humility while avoiding the shogun’s judgment.”

“Now you are thinking like a noble,” Amaya said.

“I’m married to one, eh? I’d best get a handle on such methods.” Yoshio rolled up the scroll and handed it to Amaya. She tucked it into a pristine white scroll case, made up of dried and shellacked linen. “Though in the letter you called me your retainer.”

“That goes in part with the conflict with Masaki,” Amaya said. “I will deny the marriage, casting doubt on the lies Masaki has told, or will tell.”

“You have planned this from the beginning.”

“I have,” Amaya said. “Marriage to you would not be acceptable, for the shogun or my father. At least, so unseen and unannounced. It would not be expected of me, and so we will use it.” She ran her hand along the top of Yoshio’s arm. “That doesn’t mean other things are not real. You must trust me as you have before.”

“I do,” Yoshio said, running his fingers along her bare forearms.

“I will make sure this is waiting for the shogun at his clan estate north of Sakai,” Amaya said, tucking the scroll case into her small bag. “It will show a careful consideration of manners, but not seem to sycophantic. We don’t want to give him the impression that we are about to ask for a favor.”

“I thought we were asking for an audience,” Yoshio said.

Amaya held up her finger. “Yes, but if he anticipates a favor he is as likely as not to find himself too busy to meet with us.”

“Navigating the social hierarchy is like walking through a field of traps,” Yoshio said. “I’m glad I have a good guide.”

Amaya smiled at him. “You have no idea, my dear Yoshi.”

*

“I cannot believe we have had to come all the way down to the harbor to find this stuff,” Yoshio said. He rubbed the dried rosin, held in a small bag, between his fingers. It made them feel sticky, but not dry like the rosin he had used in training.

“It’s just as well,” Sengo said. “I need to find some polishing stones, and damned if the only polisher in Sakai won’t sell some to me.”

“Why not just hire him to polish the sword?”

“Eh,” Sengo shrugged, picking up the bag. “I usually farm out stuff like that if I’m in a hurry, but the sword polisher is young, and something about him makes me think he won’t do such a good job. Besides, if you want something done right, it is best to do it yourself.”

“There are advantages to hiring specialists,” Yoshio said.

“I know how to polish a sword, Yoshi,” Sengo said. Yoshio followed him back out into the street, filled with people of both high and low status. Parasols stuck out above the crowd in various places, dots of color in a sea of white and brown.

“And I know how to sharpen one,” Yoshio said.

“Then what’s the argument?” Sengo said. He pointed down the street. “The bigger trade houses might have what I’m after.”

“I need to see to the women. We shouldn’t wander far,” Yoshio said, sticking his neck above a group of laughing young women to see Emi and Amaya tying bushels of straw together. Yoshio thought Amaya was trying to dress down, but she held herself more straight and delicate than the peasants around her, even when she stooped. He strode over to them.

“Did you find what you sought?” Amaya said. She handed a bag to Yoshio that was heavy with rice.

“Apparently,” Yoshio said. “Muramasa wandered off to look for polishing stones.”

“Your whetstone would not do?” Amaya said.

“No.” Yoshio threw the bag around his shoulders.

“Trust a man to his art,” Amaya said.

“I do not know how long he will be,” Yoshio said.

“Let’s just go back without him,” Emi said. “Sengo makes me miss being all alone up by the shrine.”

“I’m sure he could find his way back,” Yoshio said, “but I’m also quite sure that he will have something else for me to carry. Something heavy.”

“Then I’ll treat us to lunch,” Amaya said.

Emi sighed but followed Amaya and Yoshio to the row of open markets and restaurants that faced the harbor. Most of them were filled with fisherman and traders of different sorts, laughing and cussing as they ate quickly prepared food. They passed a loud group of eta that whispered to each other as they passed. Yoshio did not spare them a glance, but held tight to his sword. Amaya selected a place closed in by awnings around an open kitchen. Wealthier men, merchants and a select few samurai, filled the low tables in the shade, talking quietly. A serving woman sat them quickly, rushing back between tables with fresh pots of hot water and crushed tea leaves. She came back by and set down a small bowl of them. Amaya began preparing the tea.

“This place is a bit expensive, don’t you think?” Emi said as she watched the rich, black tea fill her cup.

“I was just thinking we might be slumming it a bit,” Yoshio said with a smirk. “Amaya has particular tastes.”

“No sense missing out on fine things, when you can afford them,” Amaya said. “And that statement was blessedly familiar of you, of Yoshi.”

Yoshio opened his mouth to apologize, then stopped himself. Amaya poured him a cup of tea, and then finally poured one for herself. herself.

“Fine things. One of many treatments for which I owe you thanks,” Yoshio said, holding up his cup of tea.

“If thanks is what you owe, you have just paid it,” Amaya said. She smelled the tea and closed her eyes. “Fresh off the boat.” She looked out on the harbor, and the ships that filled it. Most of the docks were empty, vacated by fishing vessels not yet returned from their catch. Far away, larger ships, filled with goods from Korea and China, bobbed slightly, their battened sails pulled up into tight bundles that swayed in the breeze.

Food came quickly after they ordered: freshly cooked fish, lightly oiled and placed on a bed of rice. Emi ate quickly, almost greedily, but she was always careful to control her actions, copying Amaya’s graceful pose and deliberate movement with the chopsticks. Yoshio understood, watching the girl, that hunger truly was something she had in common with Sengo, though she observed much better manners than the swordsmith.

Amaya produced her ink set after the plate was taken away and replaced with more tea. She began a careful painting a small sheet of white paper with a small and stiff brush, taking her time with each stroke. Yoshio watched her for a time, then something caught his eye from beyond the edges of the open restaurant.

“What is it?” Emi said. Amaya looked up and followed her retainer’s eyes over to a group of samurai devouring food and laughing.

“I’ve seen that face before,” Amaya said.

“It is Shiro,” Yoshio said. “The commoner that Kuramasa Kuro hired as retainer after demanding that his former bodyguard commit seppuku.”

“Who?” Emi said.

“A vassal of my father,” Amaya said. “His wife and his retainer betrayed him some weeks back. I wonder if Shiro is still in the employ of him.”

“If so, Kuramasa is surely around here somewhere,” Yoshio said.

“My first inclination is to avoid him,” Amaya said. “I’ve had enough of that rat face for the year.”

“I agree, but-” Yoshio cut off as the men shifted around the table, reaching for a jug of sake. “There is Kuro, after all. I wonder what he is doing here.”

“Perhaps he heard the shogun was coming,” Emi said. She looked to Amaya bashfully. “Not to intrude, but I overheard.”

“It’s fine,” Amaya said. She put her brush down on the ink stone and closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she opened them. “I see some disadvantages to him knowing we are in Sakai, not the least of which is my contempt for him. However, if he is planning to play something with the shogun, or any other daimyo with him, it would be good to put some fear into him. Yoshi, Go speak to him.”

Yoshio looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“Go talk to him. Be yourself, but do not reveal where we are staying or why we are here, other than for the summer festivals.”

“This did not work so well last time,” Yoshio said.

“He is afraid of you,” Amaya said. “Let his tone speak to you when his words are lies.”

“Very well,” Yoshio said. He pushed himself up and adjusted his swords. “I hope my tea will not get cold in the meantime.”

“I’ll pour a fresh cup for you,” Amaya said. She dipped her brush back into the ink and began painting again, seeming to pay no more heed to the task.

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