Blood Drinker: Chapter 17-2

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Oguri Sokei, c. 1500

 

Yoshio waded through the reeds, donning only a cloth that was wrapped around his loins, his kimono having been left on the shore. He dug down in the water, coming up with handfuls of silt, littered with grass, which he put beside a large clay bowl that sat upon one of the many rocks that protruded from the slow stream. Sengo, stripped down in similar fashion, went through the piles of mud and sorted out a grey, malleable clay from rocky soil and watery brown silt. Emi sat under the shade of a willow nearby. Though she had agreed to help Sengo find and retrieve the silted clay he sought, actually pulling it from the stream bed would have meant removing her kimono, so instead she sat watching the men.

“Emi!” Sengo shouted to the shore.

“I’m not coming in to help you, you old coot,” she called back.

“How about you say a prayer or two? Try to get that kami of yours to come back,” Sengo said, ignoring the insult.

“Kami do not come on a whim,” She shouted back. “Such is not to respect the spirits.”

“Then respectfully ask it to come if it wishes,” Sengo said.

Emi looked around with a sigh. “Very well.” She stood up and dusted herself off. From the small bag she had carried with her she withdrew a long chord. She bent down near the stream and began pulling out the stiff water reeds and binding them together. She walked a few paces away and pulled from a tepid bank a single flowering water-lily, which she placed in the bundle. She knelt down again near the river and began to shake the bundle up and down, softly touching the running water. She chanted as she did so, imperceptibly soft.

“Never seen this sort of prayer before,” Yoshio said, eying the girl.

“Whatever speaks to the spirits is a good prayer,” Sengo said.

Emi paused and looked around at the placid scenery, then closed her eyes and continued. Yoshio piqued his ears, trying to make out her voice over the sound of water falling over stone near at hand.

“Friend of life, friend of mine. This water holds your memory,” Emi said, just above a whisper.

“Water going into earth, and back up in the sky,” she continued. “Everywhere and anywhere my friend can wander free. Please return and bless this place, stained so near at hand. Nothing but respect and purity can I offer with your reeds. If you can see as to withhold a blessing, may you flow from life to life, ever free.”

Emi opened her eyes and looked up. She met Yoshio’s gaze and turned away, looking upstream.

Sengo looked over at her. “Maybe not today, then.” He reached back into the river and pulled up more clay.

A wind picked up then, whistling through the trees and reeds, knocking tall stalks of bamboo on the far bank together like drums. Emi’s hair came undone, and blew away from her face, downstream. Yoshio felt his flesh suddenly tighten with the cold. The tied bundle of reeds and flowers flew apart in Emi’s hands. She stood up and looked out to the center of the water and smiled, warm and wild despite the cold wind.

“Did you hear that?” Sengo said.

“What?” Yoshio said.

“The whispers!” Sengo hissed. He turned upstream.

“I heard Emi whispering,” Yoshio said, trying to track Sengo’s gaze

“No, it was the kami,” Yoshio said. “He remembers.”

Yoshio strained, but all he could hear on the wind was the sound of leaves and rattling plants. A loud crack sounded from somewhere upstream. A current picked up against the line of rocks, sending Yoshio sprawling onto a boulder. The water level rose. Sengo pushed himself up toward the stream.

“Can you hear him?” Emi said.

“Yes,” Sengo shouted back. “But I cannot understand.”

“Just listen,” Emi said, looking to Sengo. “He was here first. His words are truer than ours.”

The water rose again, almost to a flood, and spilled between the rocks. Sengo lost his footing and fell backwards under the water. Yoshio reached under and, catching the blacksmith, pushed his head above the torrent. Sengo gasped for breath.

He looked to see Emi laughing, the wind whipping her hair across her face. “The spirits want to drown you, Muramasa.”

“Of course,” He shouted, pushing the hair off of his forehead. “He senses the fire.”

“We should get to shore,” Yoshio said, dragging Sengo.

“No,” Sengo said. He stood back up. “Please, spirit. If you do not understand my words, know my feeling. Purify this, your home, so that I can quench the untamed kami of fire. It is told the water sees further than even the wind. You must understand.”

The wind intensified, and then, in a sudden burst of an overwhelming gale, stopped, and reduced to a calm breeze. Yoshio felt the sun on himself and was surprised, as if he had walked out of a house into daylight. He thought he could make out, among the rustling of foliage, a faint whisper, though the words sounded strange.

“Ha!” Sengo said, looking at Emi. “The land itself speaks to you! You are no simple shrine attendant.”

Emi smiled. “I am a simple shrine attendant. I guess I am a shaman too.”

Sengo laughed again and tried to make to shore. He found he could not move. Yoshio pushed against the rocks and found that his feet too were stuck, buried beneath a tall bed of silt. He reached down and dug around his calves, bringing up a fistful of clay. Sengo did the same, and feeling the grey material in his fingers, cracked a wide smile. He went to the bowl and dumped out all of the clay they had collected previously, then began heaping the fresh silted clay into it, laughing all the while.

“It seems he didn’t detest you too much after all,” Emi said, walking to the sand bar nearest to Yoshio and Sengo.

“I am thankful,” Sengo said. “Fill up those jugs with river water.”

“Since you asked politely,” Emi said, and dipping one of their clay jugs into the river.

Yoshio paused from the digging of the silt and looked upriver. The stream was calm, and only a slight breeze could be perceived. He strained to hear the whispers again.

“Something wrong?” Sengo said.

Yoshio turned back to him. “Nothing, I’m just rarely so surprised.”

*

Yoshio looked around the dimly lit building. It’s low ceiling and many support posts made him feel claustrophobic, though it was very spacious inside, running forty paces or more between walls. He could smell, though he could not see, somebody smoking opium, and it turned his stomach slightly. Women reclined on cushions and couches with men along the edges of the walls. They were dressed in loose garments and more than one had her breasts exposed through the draping cloth. Yoshio could only think of the clothes as “flimsy,” a far cry from the carefully arranged courtesans he had seen in Kyoto. These were women not made to look beautiful, but enticing; tempting. The men that sat with them matched them in their simple, yet not quite dirty appearance.

“This way,” Emi said. Yoshio looked down to see the young woman walk confidently through the room to another door that was shut. She looked at Yoshio. “You really stand out here,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“Honor shines more brightly in the dark light of misfortune and self-abasement,” he said.

“I meant that you’re frowning,” Emi said. She looked around the room. “Do you see anyone else frowning?”

Yoshio looked around. Virtually everyone, including the women, were indeed smiling or laughing. “No.”

“Then lighten up, if you can figure out how.” She slid open the door and stepped inside. Yoshio followed, consciously trying to relax his brow. The room was filled with low tables. Cards littered the tops of many of them, which were gamblers from many walks. Most appeared to be playing Oichu-Kabu, a popular game of chance, and judging by the stacks of silver in front of them, they were losing.

Emi led him to where a young man leaned against the wall, a katana, slightly shorter than normal, tucked in his belt. He watched a few of the tables, his tattooed hand on his sword.

“Katashi-san,” Emi said. He turned his attention from the tables and looked at her.

“You’re back,” he said. “So soon. Who’s this?”

“My hired muscle,” Emi said, winking. Yoshio looked at Katashi, trying to smile.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” Katashi said. “Not like I care.” He crossed his arms.

“Well, the men I was interested in were already here when last I came. I figured you’d have found something,” Emi said.

“Not much that I believe,” Katashi said.

“Just because it seems implausible does not mean it is false,” Yoshio said. Katashi frowned at him.

“So he’s a philosopher and hired muscle,” Katashi said. He laughed to himself.

“I would still like to know what they said,” Emi said.

“Well, the fat old one…” Katashi snapped his fingers as if trying to remember.

“Kuro,” Emi said.

“Yeah, he called himself a daimyo,” Katashi said. “Which is a barrel of dung. Sure, he had plenty of money – too much for the whores here, but I’m not going to turn away a customer – but he was clearly a merchant. Bad manners even for one of them.”

“What sort of things did he say?” Emi said.

“Bunch of nonsense about how he was friends with the shogun. He said he had a 100,000 koku fief owing the Hosokawa.”

“Interesting,” Yoshio said. “Did he say anything else?”

“Not that I heard, specifically,” Katashi said. “He spent most of the night, when he wasn’t down here drinking and boasting, upstairs with Hana, one of girls. Had some problems with her.”

“You threw him out?” Yoshio said.

“Not those kinds of problems,” Katashi said. “She just said it was more of the same boasting.”

Yoshio looked at Emi, his hand stroking his chin.

“What about the other man,” Emi said. “The one with the old tachi.”

“He didn’t have much to say,” Katashi said. He narrowed his eyes. Emi pulled a flat silver bar from her pocket. Katashi took it, nodded, then looked around. “He paid with a promissory note, though he couldn’t read the kanji on it. It was from a trader in north Osaka. It said fifty ounces, but he claimed it was for 100.”

“Which one?” Yoshio said.

“Mitsowaga.”

Yoshio looked to Emi and nodded slightly.

Emi looked at Katashi. “Thank you.”

“I don’t like seeing you around here,” he said. Emi nodded silently, almost bashfully, and Yoshio followed her out.

*

It was warmer in the hills than down by the bay, and the door to the yard was left cracked, letting in a slight breeze. Amaya lay on her side, watching Yoshio as he looked out to the moonlit courtyard.

“It is significant that Shiro had that promissory note,” Yoshio said. “It means that he and Kuro are working to opposite ends.”

“Not necessarily,” Amaya said. “They could be working to the same ends, just not aware of the other.”

“True,” Yoshio said. “I could see someone hiring Shiro without the know of Kuro. It would be wise for a dirty job. Of course-”

“You should not let Kuramasa occupy your mind,” Amaya said. “He is not the kind of distraction you need right now.”

“You are right,” Yoshio said. “I should focus on the duel. That is the critical action. Kuro can play his games.”

“Shut the door and come to bed,” Amaya said.

Yoshio pushed the door shut and turned around. Amaya’s kimono was hanging on a stand behind her. The sheets of the bed, rough and textured, hung lightly around her hips, leaving her upper body bare. Yoshio thought about the women in the brothel, dressed casually. They presented a different sort of beauty from what he had been told to admire throughout his adult life, and though he had looked at them with derision, the same sort of image made flesh before him did not evoke the same reaction. Amaya, disrobed, was far more enticing than they were, and was still, as he saw it, a marvelous beauty. She pleased both viscerally and aesthetically. He wondered again how she was not married.

He untied his obi and hung up his own kimono, then slipped into bed. He felt Amaya’s hands and arms around him.

“Is this real?” he said.

“Of course,” Amaya said. “This was never part of the plan. At least, it is not what I had planned.”

“What plan shall it be part of, then?” Yoshio said.

“Do not make this part of my conspiracy, Yoshi. I just want you to own this night.”

He complied.

*

Muramasa applied the clay, partially wetted with the water from the stream to become a thick, grey molding material again, to the now roughly polished straight blades. First he coated thickly the back edge and sides, using the richest and stiffest of the clay. Next he took thinner clay, and after mixing it down further with water, dragged it on the sides going from the back out to what would become the sharp edges of the swords. Yoshio watched Sengo as he gave the blade a crisscross pattern with the wettest clay, though the space between the lines of silt grew and shrunk, and seemed to be almost haphazard. The blacksmith left these blades to dry in the sun. The rest of the river water they poured in a long trough.

When they returned the next morning, the clay had dried into a dirty grey. The pieces looked ugly as the forge was lit. Yoshio once again manned the bellows.

“It must be hotter still,” Sengo said, throwing more coals into the center of the forge. Yoshio pumped harder. “Keep up that pace. This is the most important and critical step. We have but one chance to make this blade perfect.” Muramasa, holding steady the tongs, put the katana in the forge. He looked in, watching the blade heat, mindful of the position it held among the coals. Frequently, he would flip it or adjust the angle, then cover it with more coals.

“It looks as though our hurried patience has at last come to fruition, my friend,” Sengo said, drawing the metal from the coals. It was glowing red along the edge. He looked at Yoshio, who had stopped pumping. “Now comes the miracle.”

He thrust the entire length of the metal into the trough of water. A torrent of steam rushed up into Yoshio’s face, feeling as though it were burning him, as the blade hissed in the water. Sengo smiled as the steaming water began to clear. After a few moments, he dipped his tongs back in and retrieved the blade.

It came up, still steaming, but in seconds had gone from a straight piece of steel to a katana with a perfect curvature.

“That is a miracle,” Yoshio said. He admired the shape as Sengo held the piece in front of him. “Perfection.”

“Perfection is in the water, and soil, and the steel,” Muramasa said. “And through such the gods have made another, this one of steel, to join with them, may it serve you well.”

The swordsmith placed it on a makeshift rack to cool. Yoshio saw him smile as he gazed upon it, then he pointed back to the bellows. It was time for the wakizashi to be born.

End of Act IV

 

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