It was gusting and frigid, and the type of storm was brewing that was liable to end a man, but my orders from the shogun were clear. I was to inure myself to the orange vassals at once in order to make them loosen their tongues and spill the secrets of their vile master, Mr. Kojikasu, so that he could be disemboweled before his knowledge grew too great.
I had very little time. Stories of Kojikasu’s knowingness were already whispered in roadside inns from here to the barbarous isles of the north. Even the lowly garlic-eaters of Korea now laughed up their sleeves at the shogun’s expense, such was their confidence in the powers of Kojikasu-san. Little did they know they would all be boiled for their insolence. But first things first.
I entered the storm in the night’s deepest hour wearing the straw hat of a zen monk to mask my features and give me a reason to climb the western foothills: a pilgrimage to the great temple of Norimitsu. My bones ached and the skin around my hands grew tight, but I took heart for I was reminded of the days of training and how I’d sat with Sunomono-san beneath the Great Falls for many hours in the weeks before it turned to ice. Poor Sunomono-san, frozen in our mountain camp. At least he’d passed honourably. His children will not have to slice their bellies open for shame.
When I heard the cry of birds I stopped. I’d walked all through the darkness and the sun was heaving itself over the mountains behind my back. I knew from my training that the cry was false, and so I found a grassy plinth on which to meditate. From there I scanned the forest for those who courted death with their deceitful song.
There was nothing to be seen and the forest again grew quiet as the cold light of morning filtered through the leaves. I knew, however, that a strange presence lurked nearby and so I held tight to the hilt of my shortsword as I feigned meditation. Having thoroughly scanned the forest floor I’d just begun to watch the canopy when I saw them: two small flashes of orange in the foliage. Kojikasu’s vassals toying with me from the sky.
Before I could properly identify them, however, I spied an old woman cresting the hilltop. “Old woman,” I said. “Why go you alone in this wooded country. Thieves and shinobi populate these parts and may disembowel you for a trifle.”
“I am grateful of your prudent counsel, sensei,” spoke the old woman, who wore a strange headdress of monkey fur. She bowed deeply as she passed, and I noticed she was sweating. This woman is nervous, I thought. And she is hiding something under her monkeyskin hat. Fearing an ambush I sliced off her arms with my shortsword and looked to the canopy.
The orange vassals were gone, but behind the trees now stood a curious man. “Kojikasu-san,” I said. “I have seen your plan to destroy me, but I cannot allow it. For I belong to the shogun, and to end me would be as to dismember our great master. I fear not for my life, but I cannot let you debase yourself in such rebellion, nor can I permit you to offend with your insolence the very ground on which we walk, itself an embodiment of the shogun’s majesty. And so I must disembowel you at once.”
I spoke these words with a gravity that tends to strike fear in the hears of impudent traitors. But Kojikasu was different. He did not even deign to look in my direction, instead gazing the other way. Indeed, I thought, becoming nervous myself as I heard the distant sounds of a crowd gathering, which could only mean more danger for my mission. His knowingness is strong.
Despite these misgivings I sprung to my feet. The element of surprise had been lost with the arms of that aged spy-woman, and now it was incumbent upon me to destroy this foul creature here on the slopes of these western hills. I charged into the wood ready to cleave the head of that vile betrayer Kojikasu and be done with my work, the better to rejoin the shogun and set about disemboweling his myriad remaining enemies in other lands.
But as I reached the spot where he’d stood amidst the darkened greenery of the wood, I found him to be gone, carried off like the mind in a deep reverie. I glanced in all directions but saw nothing. He had disappeared without a trace, along with his young vassals. Very well, I thought. He shall return. When he does I will be here, and I shall cut him down like rice at harvest. And so, climbing a tall spruce, I resolved to wait. As the nervous woman’s moans echoed faintly through the trees, I knew I would stay until Kojikasu had reaped the bitter reward of his effrontery. Or, at the very least, until I fell to the forest floor, gaunt and withered like the dry leaves of winter.