Honor

Live True or Die Trying… A book in progress by Jay Horne

Honor
Image by the Author | Copyright Bookflurry Inc. 2021

Preface

When the steel song of clashing death roars, it is only a matter of time before fear finds the samurai.

You’re in the middle of a raging torrent of screaming devils, brought together by the opposing rivers of war. Teeth are ground to nubs, under the helmets of soldiers in the midst of chaos. Confusion of battle threatens to break every single man, one at a time.

The distant ring of blades is ever-present.
A thundering of feet on soil, which you feel more than you hear.
The whiff of the closest katanas are high and clear. They rip through the air with a sonic boom that only you can sense, and those are the ones that are coming for you.

Hundreds of arrows pock the sky, one sends mud splashing across your shins as it claims its stake; a spot of dirt turned wet with blood and sweat.
The thick haze hanging, in wait for the next rain of cowardly execution.

Sometimes death comes slow, with a splintery crack of your armor, as if it were in the jaws of a giant animal. Other times it comes quick, accompanied only by the high scream of an ineffective iron defense.
Most will die in agony, their limbs severed, their organs punctured, a stream of blood washing out of them into the mix.
The lucky ones are dropped, crippled and forgotten, left to finish themselves with their own wakizashi;

honor still in tact.

Chapter One

Ima Yoshimoto had marched his huge army straight into Kyoto during 1560, overwhelming our border castles twelve to one. But, during their celebration and under the cover of darkness, we ninjas came.

Death is always waiting, either patiently or in ambush. In a way we are all just another story of death. Whatever lies in wait on the other side is either too brief or too bad to remember. Tonight, I am death.

Something about your entire body being wrapped in dark linen, makes you feel a false sense of safety. But behind the mask, and under all the layers, you’re truly terrified.
Bravery is an attribute held in high regard. But when there is no choice to cower, is fighting really brave?

The general is cinched in combat with Yoshimoto. He’s losing. Disarmed and only holding out by pining Yoshi’s sword hand in his armpit; a futile attempt at a few more seconds of life. Yoshi’s furious.

“You come in to my camp?”

The general’s nose explodes when Yoshi’s forehead connects.

The only solace during combat is that the drawn sword takes up your soul.
Bravery? Perhaps disassociation.

Yoshi delivers a kick, and Naga rolls away.

“Now,” Yoshi belts, as the storm approaches, “you can go home to Oda on the wind — ”

Yoshi advances one sandal and lifts his sword.

Now I act.

It happens in slow motion. The fear brings everything down to a crawl.
Soaring over the tent, I’ve become the blade. Slashing down on his blind side, if I’d rent flesh I’d feel nothing. But impossibly, he parries. I feel the sting of metal hitting metal. When his eyes flit back, I can see something in them.
A hesitation? No. A recognition.

When you’ve never known mercy, you never think twice.
Yoshi’s pause is his end.
His body drops from under his head with all the tranquility of a severed marionette.
When it is done, consciousness returns; quickened as I sheath the blade.

General Naga is stuffing the head into a rice bag when a messenger relays that only two officers survived the assault. They’ve joined our ranks — wise choice.

The western wood is growing thick with garbed soldiers. Tents, now occupied with the dead, are emptied.
Naga’s heartless gaze is flickering in the torchlight. Orange reflections daring me to take credit for the kill. Underfoot, the ground’s been silently stirred by countless feet.
He tosses his trophy to a passing ninja when thick raindrops begin pittering in the slush.

Naga’s menace is surely kindled from words among the middle men. My name has been present in recent conversations. The longer you survive, the more reputable you become; like it or not.

Naga is among the Chunin whose uncanny ability to return alive, though unorthodox at times, has kept him floating atop the honor pool. Honor among Oda, however thin in respect to justice, pays dividends in the form of comforts and women alike. A perk that Naga is in no hurry to forfeit, especially to the likes of me; or any illegitimate son of the clan.

It only strengthens his resolve when I look away to the ruined stretch of camp. Rain is graying out the whipping canvases of the temporary homes.
Dark shadows bound from cover to cover, their backs and jackets heavy with loot of the fallen. Loot that, if found on their person upon return, is a death sentence.

Actions that cross the line of honor are suicide.
The Shogun’s vague rules of war count heavily on ones own conscience. Oda’s generals seem to blur that line.

From the corner of my eye, General Naga leaps, light-footed, up onto the crest of the clay rise. A crest quickly becoming a bloodied channel to the Sakai River.

A crack of lightning electrifies the humid air. Sparks spray in the upper reaches of a cypress as the bolt connects in the branches.
In the bright light, I see teeth. My pupils pinch, to compensate for the the flash.
Yoshi’s hell hound is snarling just outside of his tent. Branches splintering, drowned it out.
Before being plummeted into the complete darkness of unadjusted sight, I shove my left forearm out to intercept the dog’s jagged vice. Soft skin is saved only by the dense bamboo guard there.
Right below the dog’s unforgiving grip is my target.

For a second time since Yoshimoto’s bitter end, I feel the quickening; the blade slides into the scabbard, my soul behind my eyes. This time the sword stays on-hand in my left.

In the brief time it took to dispatch the animal, the makeshift town has become deserted. Ninjas are retreating home along the trade route south of Kiyosu Castle.

Another flash of lightning floods the late Yoshi’s tent in pale orange.
A silhouette moves inside.

I could almost forget that an onslaught had just occurred when the heavy flaps fall back into place behind me. It’s so clean. The thrum of muted rain overhead.
Sitting in the back is Ima’s concubine, dressed in a pink and blue kimono, gazing up. Like an untouched lotus among lillies, her makeup a mime in the dark.

“Was Yoshimoto so confident?” I ask.

“More so,” she says. “He was certain.”

Sure, they largely outnumbered the guard, but to attend a concubine in a time of war?

Tabis sponge brown sludge into the colorful tatami as I step in.

Likely, she’s Naohira’s daughter, mother of Yoshi’s youngest son.
How to feel in the presence of an innocent?

I take off the mask and hood to breathe easy.
Silent caution spreads out from her. Like a snake on a bed of eggs.
She clutches a dagger in those folds, but something else is hiding there.
I took a knee, eased my sword to the floor.

When a whimper came from under her arms, she no longer made an effort to hide it. Hazelnut eyes peered out from under the curls of a sleeve, then slowly he emerged from her linens.
The tension was so thick it seemed to force a lull in the beating of the drops over head. The rain slows. Memories stir.
I’m faced with the internal conflicts of the Oda Clan all over again.

Honor isn’t gray.
The code of the Oda.
Many soldiers have fallen to their own swords at its cause. Were all their deaths just? Why ever would a soldier risk death and dishonor for disobedience?
But, peering into that boy’s eyes, I could briefly understand why a man might stray from the black and white word of the Shogun. Are loyalty and honor the same?

“What’s your name, boy?”

The bright lips of the concubine move on a still mask of white, she pulls the boy further into her breast.

“His name is Imario.”

“I want him to tell me.”

The child’s dark hair is trimmed straight at his forehead.
She nods to him solemnly.

Outside, the water rushes its way past the tent in a stream. The lull in the rain is accompanied by an eerie gustless silence, the wind is being inhaled by the monsoon in preparation of a mighty blow.

Inside, the boy bravely speaks.
“My name, is Imario —”

And the giant tempest finally comes. Wind breaks free to a banshee’s howl. The northern tent wall goes concave, a giants belly inside the abode. It pulls the rest of the small hut’s fabric taught, but it holds fast.
The noise of trees through the windy channel completely covers the sound of the entrance-way being flung open.
The concubine flinches, her eyes form saucers.
I am instantly my sword.
Somewhere outside of consciousness, I can hear the thud of the general’s severed hand hitting the floor. Naga’s throwing knife could never have been deflected.
The boy is dead.

“Kusa!”
The general’s curses get lost in the concubines screams.

Three things happen simultaneously.
The boy’s head lulls back, a long sliver of steel sturdily wedged in the corner of his eye. A rift forms in the canvas overhead, as if time had waited for Naga’s hand to fall before the fabric registered the slice. Water pours into the opening, and now there’s a liquid sheet between he and I.

“You fool!”
He tries dampening the immediate flow of blood from the stump.

The concubine continues her screams, dragging the limp boy to the back of the tent and standing up over him. She’s pressing back against the soft wall, likely wishing she could shift right through.
Hysterics. Screams from up high, and then sobs from down low as she’s touching the boys paling face.
One of my eye’s are on Naga and the other’s on the woman (knowing a dagger still hides there), unsure which wrath will come first.

Naga yanks his head-mask off and uses the large piece of cloth to cover the end of his arm, presses it hard against his thigh.

“Tie here you useless fool!”
He has taken it for an accident. Perhaps it had been an accident.

I drop the sword, tie the fabric tight at the elbow. Naohira’s daughter still bellows, now sliding to the floor, her kimono crumbling down around her.
Clearly distressed, Naga thrusts the covered stump under his jacket and holds it against his stomach. His jaw bones small mounds beneath his cheeks, the tight clenching of his teeth only momentarily eased in order to shout uncertainly. His Japanese angry and forced.

“Bring the woman back with you,” Ikaneckaraba Ikanai, “I am going!”
Naga’s eyes flit from me to her. He wants some conformation.
I nod.
Then he flees into the green and blue miasma beyond, and the monsoon lulls once again.

The concubine comes for me.
Her tanto was knocked away easily enough, but she struggled at
regaining a grasp on the small knife, which had turned a somersault and stuck into the tent floor just out of her reach.
She was begging for the blade. My shins screaming as her wooden sandals
raked up and down.

She wanted to turn the dagger on herself.

“No!” reaching, raking, “You bastards!”

As she struggled against my unerring grip, I thought that I wanted to let her.

“Imario!” nails on a chalkboard.

Something inside me, at that moment, changed. Everything grayed, and a numbness fell over me.
The color drying up in the dead young boy was my own. For the first time, I felt directionless.
What was I doing in this tent, or in war? All there was left, was the simple black and white orders of command.

Honor isn’t gray.

In a simple motion, I whirl the fabric of my mask around the arm of the concubine and spin her onto my shoulder. She realizes I am taking her away and reaches out hopelessly for her boy.

“IMARIO!”

She weighs nothing.
I pick up the sword, push through the opening into the rain.
For the only time I can remember, the quickening is lost to me. I push my sword into its sheath again … nothing.

Making the rise, I start the journey back to Kyoto, wondering if I still have a soul at all.

Chapter Two

Everything’s serene. The morning is a reminder of the first I’d spent in Oda Province.
When I was about Imario’s age, I’d awoken, bathed and warm on the floor of a similar room. A practicing samurai had slid the paper door aside and stood portrait, refusing to look at me while he delivered instruction. It had been early April then, and it was early April now.

I was getting the same sense of distance from Tendau. Normally a subordinate, Tendau slid open the door and, absent of any formality, spoke out to the horizon.

“Prepare to present yourself for debriefing in the temple garden.”
He needn’t explain further.

I took up the basket, filled with the damaged and soiled garments from the ambush, and walked down to the baths. Silently, I stir and scrub the linens, rotating the water from the irrigation lines.

I’ve done it a thousand times but just can’t shake the ever-present awareness of silent eyes.
There were no greetings, no well wishes, only silence. I think of how ironic it is that on a normal morning I would welcome it.

Just as how I’d begun life here, I would end it, beyond the pain and
hope. Empty of mind, numb of body. My soul, perhaps safe in the steel, secured inside its scabbard.

I pin up each piece beside the hundreds of other duplicates that litter the runners; buzzards perched along fences after the slaughter.

I go from the baths, back up to the flat, floating.
Then, meticulously, I dawn my finest haori and hakama, perch on the stoop and began preparing my katana and wakizasahi.
Crouching here like Naohira’s daughter. Bundled in a negative image of what her bright kimono had been.
If she had been a white lotus, I were a spring sumire, violet and blue.

The naked blade shared none of its secrets. Each stroke across the whet stone, shed another inch of my spirit down through the planks.
Put a finish on it, knick your finger, put it into its scabbard for the final time.

Next, the short steel of the wakizashi, my silent companion.
I honed.
Only twice the length and breadth of a traditional tanto, the tip is angled sheer and astute.

I had grown in relationship with this weapon over my lifetime. It had never left me. Not indoors, without my katana, nor in my sleep, beneath my pillow. Always it had been my obedient protector and now I see that it had also been a Komodo dragon, who follows its prey, sometimes waiting weeks to strike.
She had waited years.

Like a wraith, I fell in with the partial congregation of my peers as they made their ways toward the gardens. Ninjas, from the previous night’s ambush were now dressed as highly decorated samurai.
It was a different world. The floods had dwindled to ornate pools and streams overnight.
Tiny golden dancers skated across the shifting surfaces under the rising sun. Though the trees were void of their flowering buds, fresh green sprouts speckled their deep mahogony branches.
The pink flowers, blanketed the grounds between the rock gardens, stripped from the high winds.

We passed beneath the arch of the garden in two uniform lines and took up places in ranks along the inner walls. Naga was not present at the spire.

Instead, the Shogun’s concubines sat parallel upon the dais where a tapestry had been hung, draped over the back wall of the garden. A great flower, the Oda clan crest, lie encircled in eloquent design on the cloth.
Still, no Naga.

The Shogun himself emerged from behind the two great stone columns at the back of the yard.

Nobuhide, distinguishable by the unusual mustache, moved purposely up onto the platform. His hair was only a thin black slick over his skull and his topknot was oiled and bound so tightly it drew up his scalp.

He removed a burdening obi from his waist which carried a third samurai sword, adorned with silver and gold, and passed it off to a Daimyo unknown to me.
The man shrank back from the attention but remained aside him.

The Shogun stood center mass before us, his body an over-sized bow of blue and white linen.

None of the company moved until Nobuhide directed his concubines to the empty lawn. His voice was a steady drum beat.

“We have secured a great victory. With Yoshimoto’s forces overcome, the Oda are a frontal power in Owari. It will be only a few years until we can eclipse the final minor forces that keep us from establishing total unified control of the province.”

The concubines were busying themselves by unrolling a pepper colored tatami on the lawn. It was the solitary ornament, floating on a sea of green, anchored in place by Oda’s gaze.

“While a quarter of our force steadied and distracted Yoshimoto’s army in the North — by erecting a dummy frontal attack — we overcame the threat from the south. We must always think offensively.
It was our element of surprise that allowed us to put a chink in their mighty armor. But as our comrades gave life and limb in a toil to capture the stronghold at Marune, our brother Iryu, bastard of Matsu Hiro, let Yoshi’s concubine flee, losing a valuable bargaining trophy.
More lives will be lost as we fight our way to the retainer, but you Iryu —”

And the shogun thrust the handle of his samurai sword in my direction and only slightly turned his chin toward me.

The congregation surely took the movement as abrubt and stern, but his eyes were what I remembered then.

His eyes hadn’t moved to acknowledge me.
The gesture he had made was like a thing conducted over and over in ritual, almost automated, no feeling or emotion behind those eyes… no ownership.
Of this I was doubtless.

In my last moments, though my feet carried me across the span to the mat, my vision was fixed on Oda’s eyes.

“ — had a duty to the Oda family. With two Yoshi converted, and taken into our ranks from battle, we cannot afford to have one among us whose allegiance is questionable!”

I now remembered the face of the new Daimyo at Oda’s side.
I had seen the face in my memories a thousand times — changed with each recollection — a stranger in battle, but now a name.

Hidoshi.

There were not many clean faces during my kidnapping, as a child but his was one of them.
Oda had spared him then, and he had spared him again now.

And so, I was to end — another example of what honor looks like in the Oda clan.

On my knees, with my jacket bundled loosely around my haunches, my loyal wakashahi would go to its bloody work.

Inserting the blade into my own body was like a dream I could not jar myself awake from.
The wound I had inflicted was not one that could be healed, there was only one way — forward, through the nightmare.
I pulled it deeper, severing some massive pipe within.
A thick flood of heated fluid spurted forth, loosed from a channel severed and sent askew.
Then, through the haze of fading sight, I saw Hidoshi’s sandled feet move swiftly from his place beside Nobuhide in an effort to help free me from my pain, but I already was being spirited away with the apple blossoms on the wind.

Though I could not know it then, Hidoshi’s expression was a match to mine, tumbling across the grass, fixed in a stony stare of recognition.

Chapter Three

Was that Imario? Or was it me?

I was just a kid as we bumped and sloshed our way along the foothills of Osaka in the covered carriage.

So far, we’d stayed dry. Even the ever-present stench of the horses had been temporarily washed from the air on stormy winds. It’s impossible to sleep when you’re always falling, constantly grasping for handholds inside a jolting and lopsided wagon.

The envoy had completed the descent from the castle’s advantageous perch and would soon be traveling smoother trails out toward Uncle’s domain.
I had never been this far from the keep, but Hidoshi — my long-time mentor — had educated me on the routes from home.
He sat across from me atop his folded legs, the stern look of countenance on his face as the wagon seesawed beneath.

I couldn’t see how, but he made no attempt at steadying himself, just
simply nodded in the opposing direction of the cart’s deep ebbs and flows.

We stopped.
Gone were the creakings of the aged wood beneath us and the scraping metal axle in its cylinder.
The howling gusts shielded us from any commotion outside.

When the drafts found the cracks in the cloth, the canvas vibrated like a reed.
Hidoshi’s eyes found their corners in suspicion when suddenly the conveyance jolted sharply to the rear. His arm shot out to steady himself against the unexpected motion.
The neighing horses came through the beating of the falling rain and the wagon rocked side to side.

Outside, Oda had jumped the convoy from the trees, easily dispatching the drenched men who held tight to their horse’s bridles.

Severing the wagon from the bleating horses would leave it unguarded and vulnerable.

Hidoshi reached for his katana and a splatter of maroon darkened the canvas from outside. There was no time for him to draw.

The wagon came unhitched.
I took the full weight of Hidoshi’s body as the floor pitched sharply forward.

We were in a heap at the wall, the carriage resting on its leads.
I had hoped the worst was over when the wooden support, which framed the entryway of the wagon, gave way with a splintery crack.
The side-wall of the carriage was slashed away behind a silvery streak, torn canvas taking to the wind.
Oda’s wide-eyed grin, his lips peeled back in tight white lines filled the void.

Leveling his sword at Hidoshi, Oda’s armored foot steps atop the wheel of the buggy. Cowering behind him, drenched, I watch as a young Daimyo takes up position behind the face in the rain.

“Where here for the boy, Hidoshi.”

Hidoshi rolled lazily aside.
He rolled aside!

My white fists clenched to his obi, and he didn’t even reach for me.
No. I was no Imario.

The Daimyo ducked around Oda.
My fading memory of Hidoshi’s face had begun that night, as Oda’s cohorts hauled me away.

Whether Hidoshi’s final expression were honorable, I could not know then, for I had no experience with the values of honor. But as I navigated memories of old, in search of a place to land, I would consider the question in stark contrast to the solid sacrifice I had just made to the Oda Clan.

Hidoshi lived among failure…
and that planted a seed of mistrust.

Chapter Three

Out in the ether of energy, where the soul lacks a physical vessel, the consciousness desires only one thing. Like a bird with tiring wings; it wants only a place to light.

I felt the quickening as my sword clicked closed.

Yoshi’s body was falling languidly away, like a severed marionette.

Naga was stuffing his trophy into a rice bag when the soldier relayed the strike’s results.
Something about two commanders joining our ranks.
Hidoshi
?

The general’s gaze grabbed my attention before the lightning struck in the cypress.

What was happening?

The next thing I knew, I was on my back and one of Yoshi’s hell hounds had my bracer in his teeth. Wrestling with it, I saw Naga watching me from atop the crest. He turned and bounded off, handing the rice bag off to a passing ninja.

I log rolled and pinned the animal down by Yoshi’s remains.
The rain was turning the ground to mud.
His naked sword was here so I crossed the canine’s neck with my knee and skewered the animal with the weapon twice.

My mind was reeling in the storm’s confusion.
I was nearly drowning in the sweat and rain absorbed by my mask!

I pulled it off as the next bolt of lightning revealed the tent’s secrets.

Deja vu!

It couldn’t be!

A shadow sat in the back of the tent.
The lotus among lillies.
I entered.

“The boy?”

She tightens her invisible grip.
“You can’t be here,” she said, “Yoshi was certain.”

A whimper, and the boy peeks through.
Amidst confusion, I could only watch when the general slides past me.

The tent wall goes concave, and he takes no mercy.
Naga pulls his katana, impales the boy sharply to the floor.
Niohira’s daughter wails, while the tempest nearly takes up the whole tent in the wind.
I stand there, watching as the concubine drives her dagger into Naga’s shoulder while he’s securing her to his back.

Once.
“USELESS!” he shouts at me.

Twice.
Now her wooden sandals, raking.
She raises it again.
Not enough.
He snaps her wrist and delivers a swift blow, knocking her out.

General pulls his hood-mask free, and I can see blood flowing over his shoulder. He lifts her, thrusts me against the tent wall, and escapes into the storm.

What the hell is going on?
Emotions are trying to catch up with me in the silence.
Ashamed, I dared a glance to the small boy’s lifeless body.

Can you get a refund on emotions? The ones I’m feeling now had been spent
before.

I kneel and cradle him.
Black bangs, trimmed straight, damp with sweat. So young, his eyelids
just paper thin. Beneath them, hazelnut … and his name …
I knew his name.

The black and white rule of the Shogun

The sun was up. Tendau was at the door.

“Prepare to present yourself for debriefing in the temple garden.”
So this part hadn’t changed.

Now, it all felt so far away. After a night of sleep it really all could have been a dream.
As I made my way down to the baths, I had time to consider any alternative to Seppuka.

When you’re given a chance to look back at your own suicide, it becomes far scarier. I didn’t think that I would remember what I had done, but now that I did, I didn’t want to go through it again. I remembered the pain. I remembered the fear that forced me to push through, rather than pull back. The severed pipe inside, not unlike these irrigation lines.
The fear was worse than the pain, and the fear was growing stronger every second I recalled it.

I furiously wrung out my linens and pinned them up among the crows.
There was something different about the day, after all…

As I put an edge on the katana, only steel was shed down through the planks.
I had either retained a semblance of my soul, or it had been
lost completely.

I raised the sword and sheath up before the light and fit them together.
Click.
I thought it had been the final time.
I guess you never know.

CHAPTER FOUR

Naga was present.
He’d delivered the concubine. I guess today was a do over for him, too.
He stood first in line next to the spire, opposite of Itutsumaro, another one of the Shogan’s generals.

Oda emerged. Dressed in the same bolts of fabric. He passed off the ornate katana to his Daimyo.
Hidoshi?
Yes, it was him.

My thoughts were muting Oda’s words. I’d heard most of them before.
Ug, that huge vessel within. Rupturing and going askew. The warmth. The fear. The point of no return.

The pepper colored tatami was out.
Pay attention.

“… that allowed us to put a chink in the mighty armor of Yoshimoto. But as our comrades gave life and limb in a toil to capture the stronghold at Marune, our brother Iryu, bastard of Matsu Hiro…”

Shit. My stomach roiled.
I could feel Naga looking at me.

Don’t turn your head or they will sense your loyalty’s wavered.

“… as we fight our way to the retainer, but you Iryu —” the handle of his samurai sword thrust out in his ritual gesture. “— failed in your duty, standing idly by why the general was under attack.”
That tiny movement of his chin in my direction, but no eye contact.

My feet moved of their own accord. Again, I crossed the sea of green to the tatami.

Just one look, you bastard. Not enough honor for a single look?

I pulled out the komodo dragon.
Removed my Jacket.

Beads formed along my forehead. Hidoshi, at his left hand, katana ready to stifle my impending suffrage.

Too much time was passing. I couldn’t stop thinking of the pain.
Just one glance you mother fucker.

The tension solidified the air.
That boys pallid face. Yoshi’s severed head.

I raised the wakashi. Up; bore it from its sheath.
Held it suspended.

Naga turned his head.
No honor here.

I’d wasted too much time. Oda doubted.
He looked.
There you are, you bastard.

Then, I bolted for Naga’s shit eating sneer — only three steps across the grass.
I was never more relieved to draw my sword.

My consciousness rode out in a single line from my bare hip. For a moment I forgot the pain. I went from the sheath, with the cut, along the gleaming steel. Right under Naga’s helmet and through the soft flesh and jugular.
A fatal blow.

An arrow buried itself to the quills behind my thigh, begging my attention. Naga’s body went limp against the garden wall, crumbling the ornate clan insignia around him. His sword was halfway drawn, the komodo dragon buried in his heart.
Another arrow.

My sword, my soul, was wrenched away. Comrades, now orderlys, grabbed my limbs.

I was forced back to the tatami and down to my knees in a dream I couldn’t wake from.

“Coward!” Oda’s voice.
I captured his unrelenting stare.
I have your attention?

A flick of his two fingers and another arrow punctures my left quad.
Felt nothing. Stayed with his eyes.
Hidoshi was coming.

This time Oda’s boring a hole right through me with his gaze.

“You die, without honor.”

There’s the shrill sound of metal grabbing metal as Hidoshi pulls from his scabbard…

Honor?
Turns out it’s grey.
My eyes are open
.

CHAPTER FIVE

I’m a moth in search of a light.

Yoshi’s eyes are two lamps burning with the fire of recognition before his body drops.
Why had he paused?

CLICK.

So, this is where life begins?
Always at the end of Yoshi’s life?

I kick the head away in disgust and Naga’s hand comes up empty. His look now stunned, stern.

I reach down and get a fistful of Yoshi’s hair, sling it to the ninja passing by.
The general’s eyes are pissing me off.
I think of killing him now to save the trouble.

He senses something and leaps up to the clay embankment.

White lightning blinds everything, and I hear the snarl too late.
That fucking dog.

He’s on me from behind and has his canines are in my crouch before I can get turned over. Blood coming fast now as he adjusts his grip.
Naga’s watching. That smile under his hood.

I’m drenched and muddy but manage to pull the wakizashi and plant it in the dog’s ribs until its dead.

The storm lights up the tent and I see she’s there.
I pull off my hood and tie it over my thigh. It’s so wet I can’t tell how much is blood and how fast I’m losing it.
I can hardly put weight on the leg.
It hurts like hell.

I’m fading. Why had Yoshi paused?
Stay with the pain.

When you try and use a muscle that’s missing half its mass, thousands of muscle fibers draw up like burnt hair. You end up with two fists under your skin on each side of the wound.
Despite it, I crutch my way inside.

This instance is over. I know that already. I just want to ask Nohiora’s daughter one thing.

“Impossible,” she says, as I crumble down into the corner of the tent.

She is more nervous this time. Could have been my face, or the fact that I was tracking more than mud inside.
Blood, piss, both. They felt the same running between my legs.

I pull my sword out from the sheath.

“What’s impossible?’ I ask through clenched teeth.

“He was certain.”

“Why? How was he certain?”

The water is rushing past. Naga is outside.

God. The pain.
Nothing can possibly be worse than my knotted hamstring.

The boy peeks through.

“He is always certain,” she says.

The monsoon blows.
Naga enters.

I plant my katana up through Naga’s right flank and out through his chest. He turns, struck with surprise.
A futile attempt with the knife in his right hand. It falls from his weak grip.
He slumps.
I slump over him.

The concubine comes.

You never forget getting your throat slit.
Once she gets into the windpipe, blood goes straight for the lungs. It’s not something that people live to tell about.
If you’ve ever got water down the wrong tube, you can get a minor sense of what it might be like. But it never ends.

You die. Attempting to cough through a squelching panic.

I will never think ‘nothing can possibly be worse,’ ever again.

Chapter SIX

I relish the cool air.

CLICK

Yoshi was always certain. Certain of everything, except for me.
I could now be certain of a few things myself. Starting with Naga not putting a hand on my trophy.

I reach down for the head, delibertly blocking Naga’s grab, and toss it to the messenger approaching.

The move is so bold that the ninja addresses both of us equally with the information about the generals who’ve joined up.
Hidoshi?
Another certainty.

“Where are they now?” I ask.

The general is shooting daggers at me with his eyes. I can practically feel the electricity in the air.

… Three …
“The trade route, with Ittutsumaro and his men.”

Naga hands him a rice bag.
“You are dismissed.”

… Two …
The messanger makes for the rise. I step into Naga’s direct line of sight and match the fury in his gaze for one brief moment.

… One …
Soldiers are passing along the clay ridge.
I shut my eyes and lunge. The inside of my lids turn red with the flash of lightning and I hear the hell hound snarl.
A whip snaps in the cypress and sparks are still falling when I look back.

The dog has Naga’s forearm, thrashing like a rag doll.
I draw.

The gulley is fast becoming a channel that will wash the beast’s remains down to the Sakai.

The general doesn’t know whether to thank me or blame me.
Regardless, his attention is on his wound.

Without a word, he bounds up to the rise and falls in with the few stragglers.

I take up position on the west side of the hut, shielded from the wind I know is coming.
When the lull arrives, there is still no sign of Naga.

I pull my hood tight and the worst breaks free.
Despite my certainty, I couldn’t help feeling that the tent was going to lift right up and take to the sky.
One of the rear stakes pulled free and lashed on ropes-end till the wind finally slacked up.

Inside the glow of a lantern slowly crept out from the back of the hut.
Imario must be frightened.
I ducked inside and into uncharted territory.
No more certainties.

Imario was kneeling into the concubines lap. She pulled him tight when I took a knee.
I pulled free my mask and held it aloft in hopes she would stay calm.

“My name is Iryu,” I said, “fostered son of Matsu Kiyo. I mean Imario no harm.”
Her eyes softened.

“I’m Sena.”

“The Oda clan has wiped out Yoshimoto’s entire hold on this prefecture.”

“Impossible,” she says.

“Such is war.”
My eyes snap back as the entrance catches a gust that sends the leather clapping. I’m relived when there is no Naga.

“The monsoon isn’t going to give in,” I tell her, “but Oda’s soldiers are moving West. I suggest you take the boy and move East, without pause, until you cross into Mikawa.”

“I can’t,” she says. “He was so certain.”

“I am certain. If you don’t put some distance between you and this camp, Imario’s fate will be worse than my own.”
She was sizing me up.

“Save your dagger,” I said. “Oda’s forces have taken two of your general’s into their ranks. If I can free Hidoshi, he may be able to come to your aid. But it’s no certainty.”

Her eyes grew to the mention of his name and the boy looked hopeful. Yet, that seed of mistrust was still germinating.

“Leave the lantern, stay off the trail, and don’t assume your safety until you cross into Mikawa.”

The trade route was silent during most nights. Tonight, I passed only one horseman who’d been willing to dare the storm, as I flew alongside the edge of the footpath.

The solders’ tracks had disappeared only when they’d most likely taken to the trees, and then again at the bridge over the Sakai. I crossed on foot to make up time.

Twice, I passed weapons dropped by the wayside. Abandoned by over zealous soldiers weighed down by the spoils of war.

A mile east of the Sakai was the grove. A bamboo and cypress forest that the ninja called their home. It was there the clan would stop to stash any loot they had gathered in Yoshi’s encampment.

I made out the glow of lanterns through the mist as I passed where the trail branched off. Prisoners wouldn’t be welcome there. Hidoshi would be ahead, and likely guarded by a few of Itusumaro’s company.

Their horses were coraled about two miles east of the castle.

Itutsumaro stood patiently with three of his guard under a giant cedar.

Hidoshi and the other general were unarmed on horseback, still in the robes they were wearing when awakened from ambush. Their wrists bound to the bridle of a pudgy kiso uma.

No certainties in combat one against four.

I approached unmasked yet startled them still.

“Where are the others?” I asked.

They relaxed a bit.
“Took a break in Osakagari,” said Itusumaro, “we’re stuck with these fools.”

“Someone’s gotta do the dirty work,” I said.

My eyes fixed on the rice bag containing Yoshi’s head. It was hanging from Itusumaru’s saddle.

“A trophy of yours?” I asked.

The two guards on foot shifted uneasily.
Itutsumaro’s grip tightened on his katana.

“Some would argue otherwise.”

The fear of death never leaves you.
Being certain that you will awaken after its sting only makes it worse.

How many people have forfeited a lifetime of precious memories just to avoid their final few moments of agony?

I tossed an egg at eye level to the guard nearest, which he instinctively bludgeoned with his scabbard.
Pepper laced smoke filed the space where they stood.

The fewer movements you perform in combat, the less time it takes to execute them.

Itutsumaru was already drawing his blade.
An attempt to parry would be defeating.
I simply took a half step off-center and his blade whiffed by. My conscious flew through my steel, up and out of the sheath. Cleanly through his wrists.

It wasn’t the edge of a razor it had been before battle, but it achieved the desired effect.
His sword careened away, hands dangling from his forearms — like mittens on strings.

Two knives stuck into his body as I turned behind him and pushed him toward the gourd on horseback, who was readying his crossbow.

The captive general’s were thrown from the saddle, slung aside yet still attached, as their mount bucked. Yet, the leather held the spooked horse fast to the sugi tree.

I was bearing down across the collar of the first guard before he could stop coughing. Silver lines stirred the poisonous ash cloud into vortices as I parried the second guard’s attack.
The steel song played.

With a whip of my left, a bo shuriken buried itself into a hind quarter of the third guard’s mount. It skuttled and the throng of a crossbow rippled the air as the shot went askew.
I severed the horseman’s leg at the knee. The horse bolted as he hit the ground.
Both general’s watched it end when I stepped over the downed soldier and drove my steel home.

The quickening returned as I sheathed my blade.
Perhaps, my soul was recovering?

Itutsumaro’s mount had remained stationary through the entire ordeal.
A well-trained horse.

I removed the rice bag from the saddle, reached down and pulled a knife free from Itutsumaro’s corpse, then led the mount over to the captives.
The nameless general briefly cowered under his arm and upheld hands.
I cut them free.

“Hidoshi,” I said, handing him the reigns. “Sena travels west along the trail to Mikawa in secret. She is unprotected and is burdened by Yoshi’s youngest son.”

Hidoshi, glared at me through the humid mist. The look of recognition, much like Yoshimoto’s final glance.

I plumbed the depths of those aged eyes for distrust and found only a little shame instead.

“There is history between us,” I said. “It was a night like this that you perhaps did a disservice to my father.”
There was a silence. In it, it felt as if time was catching up with itself.

“Can it be?” he said.

“Your chance to remedy that dishonor is tonight,” I said. “Don’t linger.”

Hidoshi mounted Itutsumaro’s majestic beast with a firm grunt. The other general unhitched and climbed atop behind him.

“Lord Iryu,” he said — He remembered my name —
“what should I tell your father?”

The rain was coming down again.

I stood there watching as the two horses disappeared west.
Soon the hooves would be knocking a wooden gallop over the the Sakai and I would be presenting the Shogun with Yoshimoto Imagawa’s severed head.

CHAPTER SEVEN

It was in the early hours before dawn that I brought my urgent news up the palace steps and was halted by the guard.
The rice bag was taken from me and I was escorted into the hot spring chambers below Oda’s personal abode.
There was several servant women there that helped me disrobe and wash my hair and body.

I soaked for an hour nearly falling asleep in the baths.
The entire army must have been settling back into the lower city by now.

As I toweled off, one of Oda’s concubines appeared like a wraith. She offered me a basic set of linen and motioned I grab my weapons and follow her.

We rounded the corner at the top of the steps and could hear the cooing of another concubine from Oda’s chambers.

Occluded by thick rice paper, silhouettes said that she was on her knees and he was fucking her from behind.
I knelt outside of the door.
The woman went silent as Oda paused his thrusting.

“Where is Itutsumaro?” asked Oda from inside the room.
Thrusting again. The concubine cooing.

“My lord,” I said, “Itutsumaro and his company fell at the hands of two general’s, turned from the battle at the border walls.”

Still thrusting, “And what of Naga?”

“Stopped in Osakagari on return,” I said. “I came upon the scene just east of the castle.”
The thrusting paused.

“Why is Naga not bringing me this report?”

“I was afraid he would take credit for the kill,” I gambled. “Naga was being overtaken. It was I who took the general’s head.”

The gentle cooing resumed. Seconds passed through their intercourse and I worried that his bond with Naga were too strong.

“Iryu,” he said, “you have done well.”
The girl moaning.

“There is something else,” I said.
His thrusting was coming to a climax while the woman tried to stiffle her grunting.

“Yoshimoto’s concubine and youngest son were not recovered from the raid, yet their things were among his belongings.”

She screamed in ecstasy.
Slowly, her silhouette rolled away and the lamplight outlined Oda as he pulled his robe up over his shoulders.

“Very good.” he said. “You may go.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“ … and Iryu — “
I stopped.

“ — never overstep your bounds again.”

“Yes, my lord.”

It can be hard to differentiate between honorable good and mere achievement.

I went back down the steps.
Near the spring, I could make out Naga’s voice arguing with Tendau and another over Itutsumaro’s fall.

Tandau, Naga, and Goyaku were soaking. More than surprise was in their eyes when I passed.

“Iryu?” called Goyaku.
I froze.

“Where were you?” he asked. “Missed you in Osakagari.”

“I’m uninterested in the tainted goods of the slaughtered.”

Goyaku rose, naked, insulted.
Naga put a hand up to still him. He waved Goyaku down confidently.
There was that smile.

“Didn’t stop you from lifting your trophy from Itutsumaro’s corpse,” said Naga.

“It was his or yours,” I said.
He smirked.

The concubine dropped two clean towels by the bath and I took the opportunity to disappear.

Bed and dinner was just down the steps and past the temple gardens. Not that sleep would come easily.
But if it did, a whole new horizon awaited.

Chapter EIGHT

I wrestled with doubt through the night.
Patience wasn’t one of Oda’s attributes. It was doubtful that the General would suggest I had anything to do with Ittusumaru’s death. At least without hard evidence. But, Naga would be out for blood.

If anything did expose me, I would be facing certain death again come morning.
Truthfully, death was now the thing I feared the most. How powerful it was!

In only three loops I had gone from fearing dishonor, to fearing the moment it all ends. Even to such an extent I was ready to live with dishonor to avoid it.

I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for air, imagining Sena was on my back again.
It took ten minutes to abate the panic.
Even after I had steadied my breath, I was drenched and shivering.

I kept extra blankets in the closet, but last night’s rice had already started coming up and I careened through the doorway to vomit from the porch.

Leaning over the edge, I watched as the steam rose up from the mess I’d created.
In the chill dawn, I wondered if I could in fact live with myself.

I crawled back into my room and piled the blankets on top of myself.

Even if I were to replace Oda’s closest general’s and be his most trusted advisor, wouldn’t I still go to my eventual grave unsatisfied?

I begged for rest until it finally came.

***

It was before the rays of morning when Goyaku nimbly climbed into the rafters of Iryu’s home.
He had pried a section from the outside latices and entered the crawl space unnoticed.

Like a monkey, he climbed across the rafters as Iryu slept below.
The open architecture allowed him to move over each of the three rooms within full view of their contents.

Goyaku had watched as Iryu wretched outside of his home and knew beyond doubt that Naga was right; Iryu had betrayed them on the southern pass.

Carefully, Goyaku removed the bundle of thread from his pouch and felt out with his big toe to ensure the stability of the rafter here above were Iryu slept.
With his thumb he pressed a tiny phial up from within his belt and held it overhead, gauging the room he had in the crawlspace there to execute his plan.

His muscles were trembling, but his skin was dry in the cool air as he began unwinding the fine string down from the ceiling toward the slumbering traitor.

Goyaku could have been a spider, perched there up in the rafters, dropping its silk from a spinerete every bit as poisoinous as a widow’s.

Down the string ran. Extending from Goyaku’s fngers up in the rafters, all the way down to an inch above Iryu’s lips as he slept.
Goyaku squeezed the phial and pressed it to the filament.

A tiny sponge, saturated with the very tincture that Naga mixed himself, released its liquid toxin to the thread.
The black fluid roiled into a bead beneath Goyaku’s fingertips, and clung to the line like a fuse.
Gravity drew the poison down the string.

Goyaku’s breath caught in his throat when Iryu rolled over on his back, mouth gaping wide.

Drip…

CLICK

Yoshi’s knowing eyes.

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