Blood Drinker: Chapter 17-1

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Chapter 17

Oguri Sokei, c. 1500

Yoshio stood beside the table, his right hand firmly holding onto the handle of his katana. He watched Kuro laugh with the younger men around him. A jug full of sake sat upright among several empty ones laying on their sides. Drops of rice wine were here and there. Yoshio looked out to the ocean, away from the men who, had they been sober, would have been ashamed of the scene they were making. It was barely mid-day.

He stood there looking at Kuro for what seemed like a very long time, though in truth it was but a few dozen heartbeats. He did not know what to say to the fat daimyo. He pawed through words in his mind, but every phrase he thought of was insulting and angry. He found that he had developed the same contempt for Kuro that Amaya had expressed on the way to the man’s estate, and he found that he could no longer think of polite, or even neutral, things to say to him. Kuro laughed at a joke that Yoshio did not find funny, showing incisors that were long and yellow.

Vermin, Yoshio thought. He remembered what Amaya had told him. Be yourself. He could never figure out whether that was an insult, or a compliment.

“Kuramasa Kuro,” he said aloud. “I cannot say that I am glad to see you here.” Kuro looked up and choked on his rice wine. Shiro, the young soldier he had hired on as retainer, turned, trying to draw his sword. “Show an inch of steel, Shiro, and I will show you all of mine.”

Shiro paused. He began to draw his tachi. Yoshio flashed out with his sword, making a slice across the bridge of Shiro’s nose. Though it was barely skin deep, the cut welled up with blood. Yoshio returned the katana to its saya.

He at Kuro. “What are you doing in Osaka? Should you not be minding your fief for our mutual lord?”

“What is it to you?” Kuro said. “I have the right of travel. It is no business of yours where I go or what I do.”

“No, but it is the business of my lord,” Yoshio said. “Last I saw you, both your servants and you wife had betrayed you. Who have you left to tend your fields so that you may have the liberty and finances to drink yourself into a stupor at Osaka bay?”

“Bah!” Kuro said, waving at Shiro. “I am not your vassal. I do not answer to you!” He stood up, teetering slightly.

“That is where you are wrong, Kuro-san,” Yoshio said, emphasizing the honorific. “In Osaka, I speak for the Asano. By the grace of my master your head remains attached to your body, and by her grace I have withheld my judgment, allowing you to see to the security of your household, but I still have the authority to take heads.”

“You have no authority here,” Kuro said. “Asano Takahiro will be here within the week.”

“Then I am still empowered until our lord arrives,” Yoshio said. Yoshio turned away from Kuro “You have told me more than you realize, Kuro-san. I would thank you, but for the misgivings in my heart for your plans. Farewell.”

Yoshio turned his back to Kuro and walked out from under the awning.

“You still owe me a katana,” Kuro said. He looked to Shiro, who wore a face of fear as he pulled himself to his feet, hand on his sword, blood dribbling from his nose into his beard.

“Pray that I do not hold such a debt as valid,” Yoshio said. He did not look back, again denying Kuro the courtesy of a bow.

Calmly, he walked back to the restaurant where Emi sat with Amaya, still painting a picture of the bay. They looked up at him as he approached.

“How is our loyal vassal?” Amaya said.

“Drunk and belligerent,” Yoshio said.

“So same as always.” Amaya smiled at Yoshio as he sat down. Yoshio looked at her, and his frown disappeared as he chuckled.

“No, a bit more rat-like, really,” Yoshio said.

“Then you have seen him more as I am accustomed,” Amaya said. “Why is he here?”

Yoshio scratched his chin. “Several possibilities. Before I conjecture, you should know that he is expecting your father to be here within the week.”

Amaya sighed and put her brush down. “That will make things a bit more difficult, but part of me expected as much. The shogun has traveled here with at least part of the military court.”

“Does that concern you?” Yoshio said.

“It merely means that there are more plans afoot than my own,” Amaya said. “That is almost always the case anyway, but I’d hoped Osaka would have less conspiracy than Kyoto.”

“You don’t know this town very well, then,” Emi said. “There’s always – always – something afoot. You know how much silver passes through this port in a day?”

“I’m sure it is more than the emperor or the shogun would know of,” Amaya said.

“Then, of course,” Emi went on, “There are always the barukumin, and the Yakuza. They think of themselves as something more than eta, and act like kindly kings, until they put a knife in your back. Osaka is a bloody town when you get to its heart. I am glad to live up on the hill.”

“Me too, for now,” Amaya said. She looked at Yoshio. “What about your conjectures?”

“First,” Yoshio said, sipping a freshly poured cup of tea. “The fact that he is here at the same time as the emperor should not be overlooked.”

“Of course,” Amaya said. “In court and war, there are no coincidences.”

“That means somebody informed him of the Shogun’s plans, for you and I have spoken nothing to him of Osaka. Who, and to what purpose, remains to be discovered. He may have plied the information from a neutral source, and may be seeking audience with Ashikaga to parlay for power or influence. Kuramasa as a clan has seen better days. This is the most benign of what I see.”

“I’m sure that will become the socially accepted reason for his visit,” Amaya said. “But you see more.”

Yoshio nodded. “He is secretive. I think that he believes he will be serving himself. The incident at his estate should prove to us all that he is easily deceived, and not one to make plans on his own. Ultimately, I think he is just a servant of a greater man.”

“Nothing is ever simple with you two, is it?” Emi said.

“No,” Amaya said. “My intuition says that you are right, Yoshi. It is unfortunate that we have so much occupying us. I should like to know what Kuramasa is caught up in.” She sighed.

“I could help,” Emi said.

Amaya raised her eyebrows.

“I could follow him to see where his staying. He doesn’t know me.” She looked to Yoshio, who shrugged.

Amaya sipped her tea and cast a glance to Yoshio. “The intrigues of politics are a dirty business. I would not ask you to involve yourself.”

“Well, it’s more interesting than raking sand at the shrine. Besides, I can look out for myself,” Emi said. “I do already.”

Amaya glanced again at Yoshio. Yoshio cleared his throat. “Then perhaps you could do this. The retainers held by Kuramasa, including his personal bodyguard, are not samurai. They are cast-off soldiers. Peasants, really, and such men have appetites for things which are not so acceptable in good circles, namely gambling and prostitutes. Talk to the yakuza that you know-”

“I don’t know any yakuza,” Emi said.

“Of course you do,” Yoshio said, “or you would not have spoken of them so.” He raised a finger. “I do not think less of you for it, you must understand.”

Emi frowned. “Fine.”

“Talk to the men who run the gambling houses in town, or the men who run the whorehouses – the cheap ones, mind you. The two will know each other.”

“Of course they know each other,” Emi said. “They occupy the same buildings.”

“We will give you a bribe for them.” Yoshio nodded to Amaya, who drew open her purse. “Ask them to ply the following from Shiro and his fellows: first, what their lord is doing here with regard the shogun, and second, who he has had in attendance in the last several weeks. The pillow is a place that reveals many secrets.”

Amaya handed Emi a stack of flat silver bars, inscribed with unfamiliar Chinese characters. The girl stared at them in her hand for a few moments, feeling their weight. Amaya, seeing her wide eyes said, “It is untaxed silver. I have imperial coins for you, of course. The Chinese mint will obscure the fact that you speak for a noble, though they will still suspect it.”

“If they will still suspect it, why bother?” Emi said, putting the silver in her own small bag hanging from her obi.

“Because suspecting is better than outright surety,” Amaya said.

*

At last the steel, which had slowly morphed from mottled chunks of sooty tamahagane into a long sheet of matted grey, was taking the shape of a sword. Sengo’s hammer rang as he molded the hard, good steel around another piece of iron that, though it was less in starting quality, took no less effort to forge. Yoshio helped him, periodically putting the steel back into the raging forge, and holding in on the anvil. He even took the hammer from time to time, though Muramasa had made clear that the final strikes, the hammer falls that would turn it from rough steel to shining sword, could only come from an expert hand.

Eventually, an elongated, narrow band, the width of a blade though straight and much longer, emerged.

“Show me your sword,” Sengo said. Yoshio put down the forceps and pulled his katana from its scabbard. Sengo looked carefully at it. “That’s good. Now your wakizashi.” Yoshio complied, laying both swords against a nearby stone. Sengo picked up the tongs and moved the steel over a wedge he had dropped into a hole in the anvil. Yoshio took the tongs back as Sengo picked up the hammer. It fell on the steel, pressing it against the iron wedge. He threw the hammer down again. The steel began to bend over the wedge, and then it finally broke into two pieces, one longer than the other. The shorter of the two he put to the side. “That will be your wakizashi,” he said as he put the longer of the two pieces back in the forge.

Sengo carefully hammered out a bevel on the hot steel, working from hilt to tip meticulously. The tip he carefully forged apart from the rest of the edge. He worked methodically like an artist, though the sword still looked closer to refuse than a battle blade. He turned the blade over hammered another bevel. He picked up the long flat piece of steel and looked down its length for irregularities.

Sengo, seeming satisfied, produced a smaller hammer and placed the back of the blade so that it rested on one corner of the anvil. He hammered along the length of the sword, the small hammer ringing loudly and clearly. Yoshio realized that the tones changed as he moved along the blade. Each place that rang with a dull, or low note, Sengo would hammer again. Through numerous re-heating and hammering, at last the blade rang in a single note throughout its length.

“I see now what you meant by my sword having a dull note,” Yoshio said.

“The song of the sword is not just aesthetic,” Sengo said, looking over the work. “It tells you the subtle differences in the steel, where things are denser or thicker than they ought to be, even below the threshold of the eyes. It is a practical device, though I do enjoy the tones.” He leaned the blade up against another stone. “Your katana is ready for its first rough work with a stone.”

“Forgive me, Sengo-san, but it is not the correct shape,” Yoshio said.

“That will be corrected according to the process,” Sengo said. “Do not worry.”

They repeated the forging with the smaller piece of steel, working until sunset until a wakizashi took form, though it was straight like its brother.

Sengo looked at Yoshio in the failing light. “Tomorrow, steel gods will be born.” He smiled as he stood up. “I’m hungry.”

*

Emi entered the room just as dinner began, Amaya’s cooking filling the small room with the smell of fresh fish. The young attendant looked disheveled, her hair falling out of its bun and onto her face, but she seemed cheerful. She sat down at an empty spot and began serving herself a pile of rice.

“I went to speak with an acquaintance of mine, who manages a brothel in the Buraku outside of town,” she said.

“You have already discovered something interesting, then,” Amaya said.

“More stumbled on it,” Emi said. “That man Yoshio spoke to – Kuro – he was already there with a few other men. I thought he was a daimyo.”

“He is,” Yoshio said. “Though he is not a particularly rich man, merely a vassal of the Asano. It is likely that he cannot afford to pay for the same courtesans that the aristocrats enjoy.”

“Prostitutes have always confounded me,” Sengo said.

“Undoubtedly,” Emi said.

Sengo went on, ignoring her. “Men throw their hard earned money away at something literally anyone can do. Where is the accomplishment? The challenge?”

“The challenge is in pretending to enjoy it,” Emi said.

“I mean for the men,” Sengo said.

“Kuro is, shall we say, newly liberated from his marriage,” Amaya said. “I think he is more concerned with what he has been missing out on than in conquests.”

“Bah,” Sengo said. “Not much of a man.”

“On that, you are correct,” Yoshio said.

Sengo shrugged. He looked over to Emi. “Your river kami. He lived near here, correct?”

Emi blinked slowly. “Um… yes.”

“Where, exactly?” Sengo said.

“The stream north of here. That is where I used to talk to him, just up-river from where we found…” Emi looked to Amaya, and then down.

“There is a slowing of the stream, and a sort of pond, yes?” Sengo said.

“Yes. Why?”

“I will need some clay to fire and quench the swords,” Sengo said. “River silt works well, and if it has been blessed by a kami, it is all the better. You can take me there in the morning.”

“I don’t know about that,” Emi said.

“I know I’m not the company you prefer,” Sengo said, smirking.

“No, it’s not that,” Emi said. “Well, it is that-”

“Good, I like a challenge,” Sengo said, looking to Yoshio, who frowned at him.

“No, I don’t know about any blessed river silt,” Emi said.

“The former home of a kami is better than nothing,” Sengo said. “Might have picked up a bit of luck.”

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