Poetry of Death
(Part 2 of 2)
By John Outram
About the author
"ATTACKED BY MANY ENEMIES, you must marshal them to a position
your attacks can be directed against them,” Sensei Kage had once told
him. “To allow your enemies to come at you from two sides, even when
you have two swords, is to allow them to enforce their strategy over
Bearing this in mind, Toka attacked strongly with his long sword, sweeping the room in a clockwise direction, driving his enemies in upon each other. The gauntleted hands parted company with the arms that carried them. A head was split from temple to jaw. In a matter of moments he had killed two opponents and marshalled the others into a corner of the room. The rice-flail dealt him a heavy blow on the shoulder but not enough to prevent a thrust with the short sword which pinned the man against the wood and paper wall. The wakizashi blade bowed and sprang back – the ninja had an iron mail-shirt under his robe – but Toka thrust again and quickly, this time into the unprotected neck of the assassin. The last ninja pushed his dying comrade aside and tried to stab the samurai through the body, but Toka was too fast. He evaded the first thrust, brought up both swords and caught the second between them using his “fire and stones” cut. The inferior metal of the ninja sword shattered between the two heirloom blades. The ninja hurled himself backwards, splintering the delicate panelwork behind him, and escaped into the garden with Toka hot on his heels.
Toka followed in his bare feet, keeping to the grass of the lawn rather than the gravel path. In the moonlight he could see one of his guards, a samurai, lying sprawled beside the fountain where Noriko had played the day before. The man had died doing his duty – no samurai could ask for a better death. Toka recited a Budhhist prayer as he ran. Down by the lake he could see a figure in a light sleeping-robe and more black shadows by the beach. It was Lady Noriko, and she was being led to a small rowing boat by two more ninja. He quickened his pace, determined to catch the man he was chasing before he could warn his colleagues.
Suddenly his feet refused to obey, and the world was turned upside down. A length of chain ensnared his ankles and he tumbled head over heels on the grass, the swords falling from his grasp. Out of the shadows rose yet another hooded assassin, this one armed with a deadly kusari-gama – a length of weighted chain attached to a razor-sharp scythe. The ninja lifted Toka’s feet to prevent him from getting back up while he struggled on the ground, clawing the grass in search of his long sword. Dark eyes glinted like steel under the ninja mask as the assassin raised the blade of his scythe and prepared to strike. Toka tried to kick away, but the ninja was fantastically strong and held him in place with ease.
Then two arrows jutted from the ninja’s chest in quick succession. The assassin sank to the ground, his eyes glazing over. More arrows whistled through the air, cutting down the ninja who had escaped from the house. As far as Toka could see, that left only two alive, the men who were trying to bundle the girl into the boat.
“Don’t shoot, Hunglo!” he cried, reasoning that only that bow-master could shoot at such speed and so accurately in the dark. “Don’t endanger Lady Noriko!”
He snatched up his katana and charged recklessly towards the lake, feeling the grass turn to sand beneath his bare toes and then feeling the cold shock of water as he splashed the final few paces. He struck at the first ninja with all his might, meeting sword with sword and driving him deeper into the lake. The ninja was a skilled swordsman, but Lord Toka was better and was fired up by his earlier success. In a moment he had beaten down his opponent’s guard and relieved him of his head. Six ninja down, and one left. He took up a striking stance. The ninja stared back impassively. His left hand was fixed firmly around the lady’s bare, white throat, while his right pressed a small dagger against the jugular vein. Toka stopped, his heart racing. He could kill the ninja – but he could not ensure that Lady Noriko would not also die.
Hunglo’s last arrow struck the ninja squarely in the left eye, and struck with such force that the steel tip went through the back of the skull. The dagger dropped from nerveless fingers, and the ninja fell back against the side of the boat, where the arrow tip caught and held him in place, bobbing up and down as the boat swayed in the water.
“I said not to shoot,” said Toka as Hunglo came loping down to the beach. The outlander shrugged.
Lady Noriko rose quietly from her knees, water trailing in rivulets from the sodden material of her kimono. There were bloodstains there too, but the blood was not her own. If the violence of the night had left her wounded or frightened, her breeding and training were such that she let nothing slip. Instead she turned with a smile and said:
“What are these night birds
That trouble our sleeping house?
Night’s black assassins.”
With barely a moment’s thought he replied:
“Night’s dark fingers closed round us,
Bright steel, black arrow protect. “
He took her hand and led her back to dry land.
“These were men of a ninja clan, eta, untouchables,” he explained. “As to why they came, there is a dagger buried in my pillow. Three, maybe four of my men are missing or dead. The boat and the fact that they wished to keep you alive suggest that also they did not wish you to remain as my guest.”
“So they were to kill you and to rescue me?” she asked, frowning. “Lord Toka, do you believe my father’s friends would have sent such men – allowed them to lay hands on me?”
“Not for a moment,” growled Hunglo. “This whole affair has the stink of Sakaza’s greasy paws. He could blame Lord Toka’s death on the Supreme Heir’s supporters and claim to have recaptured your ladyship.”
“Killing two birds with one stone,” said Toka. “The General is indeed clever.”
“And then what?” she asked with a shiver.
“Then he would suffer no restraints,” replied Toka. “He could apply whatever means were necessary to persuade your father to reveal the hiding place of the Supreme Heir’s Ceremonial Robes.”
“My father would rather die than betray his Lord.”
“Sakaza will not let him die,” said Toka. “Not honourably. He will torture him until he can take no more – and given the chance, my lady, he will torture you. While I live, I may prevent it. General Sakaza has suffered a setback because his assassins have failed. But tomorrow he will send a rider to the court of the Son of Light, asking for a direct order for me to transfer you to his custody. That order will be given. Then I will have no choice but to hand you to General Sakaza, or to take my own life. Either way, you will be his.”
“My father is prepared to die, and so am I,” she replied. “Do not disobey your lord for my sake. I would not have you risk your life or your name, my lord.”
“This is more than death,” replied Toka grimly. “Sakaza will see that you are dishonoured and humiliated. You are the bravest woman I know, and your father is a brave man, but Sakaza will break you both. He will use you to destroy your father, and use your father to destroy you.”
“And all for the sake of a few yards of cloth,” said Hunglo bitterly. “Lady, if you know what Sakaza wants to know, you could do us all a big favour by telling us now.”
“No,” said Lady Noriko. “That is not what is at stake. What is at stake is my father’s word.”
“And my word,” added Toka. “My promise to protect you. It would seem we are all three doomed.”
“Oh Toka-san,” she sighed. “It might seem so. But I have a plan – a plan that may save your life and my father’s honour.”
She explained. Hunglo suppressed a guffaw that was half amusement and half outrage. Toka frowned deeply: “No, you surely cannot mean that.”
“There is no other way, Lord Toka,” she insisted. “You must do as I ask.”
Lady Noriko waited by the fountain at sunset. She
wore her formal court
robes. Her hair was lacquered and set in place with five long pins. Her
face was painted white and her lips carmined and shaped to perfection.
Three servants dressed in silk kimonos of the second-class knelt in
attendance, taking the place of the ladies-in-waiting to which a
princess of her rank would be entitled under other circumstances.
General Sakaza and Lord Toka strode across the lawn towards her, Sakaza grinning from ear to ear, Toka somewhat subdued by comparison. In his hand he carried a large and heavy basket made of wicker and lined with rice-straw. Hunglo walked behind, carrying his bow. Lady Noriko bowed to them, her expression fixed as her make-up required.
“It is done,” snapped Sakaza cheerfully. “The last impediment to the truth has been removed. Now you may tell me truthfully where the Supreme Heir’s Ceremonial Robes are hidden.”
Lady Noriko looked from Sakaza to Toka. She said nothing.
“Come now, my lady, don’t be shy,” leered Sakaza. “You are among friends now.”
“I must know for certain,” she replied. “Show me, Lord Toka.”
Wearily, reluctantly, Toka set down the basket and withdrew its burden using both hands. Holding it by the scalp-lock, he lifted the severed head of Prince Fukiwara Yoshiro and turned the face towards his daughter.
“He looks happier today than he did yesterday,” quipped Sakaza.
“Thank you, Lord Toka,” said Lady Noriko, keeping her voice even though a solitary tear had escaped her eye and now left an ugly trail through the thick paint on her cheek. “I hope my father died honourably.”
“He died like a samurai, by his own hand,” replied Toka. “ He insisted that he be allowed to make the first cut, even though he was weakened by his imprisonment. I obeyed that wish, and then struck off his head to end his suffering. It was a noble end to a noble life.”
Sakaza fidgeted impatiently: “Yes, it was all very fine. And now he is dead, and you can fulfil your promise.”
“My promise, General Sakaza?” she replied in a dreamy voice.
“ Yes!” he insisted. “Lord Toka told me you had given your word. That your father should be allowed to die with honour, not having betrayed the secrets of the Supreme Heir – and that when he was dead, you would tell all you know.”
“Of course,” she said. “So sorry, General Sakaza. So sorry, Lord Toka.”
She fell to her knees. From the voluminous sleeve of her kimono she produced a tanto, a short, chisel-edged dagger. She laid it in her lap contemplatively.
“All I know is nothing, General Sakaza,” she said, her voice shaking a little. “My father was a brave man. He would have told you nothing for his own sake, whatever you had done to him. But I could not be sure that he would be so strong on my account. Better that he should die with his honour intact - and his secret dies with him.”
“Lady Noriko!” cried Toka as he ran to her side.
“Take that knife from her!” ordered Sakaza. “Her father may have escaped me, but she will pay a thousand times for this betrayal!”
“I thought– ” stammered Toka. “I thought you knew – I thought with your father dead we could end this matter. Noriko, do you know what you have done?”
“So sorry, Toka-san,” she smiled. “We will end this matter – but not as you expected. Believe me, if I knew where to find the robes I would tell you, not for my sake but for yours. You are an honourable man, and deserved better from me. But I know nothing, and so I must die for my deception.”
“Do not let her die!” ranted Sakaza. “I order you –”
But with the Wakibake katana pointed at his heart, and Hunglo’s arrow aimed at his back, Sakaza at last found it prudent to be silent.
“My hands are trembling,” said Lady Noriko with a nervous laugh, lifting the dagger from her lap. “A lady is permitted to die by cutting her throat, so? But perhaps I have deserved a man’s death, with my belly cut – as my father died. What do you say, Lord Toka.”
“Please, Lady Noriko!”
“I will not be tortured, Lord Toka. Will you be my true friend, as you were to my father?”
“I am your true friend, my lady,” said Toka through his tears, “for what little time is left.”
He lowered the katana that had held Sakaza at bay, then slowly raised it to a striking position above his head.
A golden ray of the dying sun glittered in the fountain for a moment. For a moment, Toka heard the echo of a samisen, smelled the warm perfume of the summer air. He said:
“Scent of sweet jasmine
Fountain scatters the sunlight
One moment in time.”
She lifted the dagger and replied:
“Sun, water, man and woman
These things remain forever.”
He struck with all his strength.
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