Big Pulp - the magazine of fantasy | mystery | adventure | horror | science fiction | romance


James R. Stratton is a chameleon: by day, a mild-mannered government lawyer specializing in child abuse prosecutions, living with his wife and children in Delaware. But in recent years he’s been forging a dark alter ego of genre fiction author through publication in venues like Dragons, Knights & Angels Magazine, Ennea and Nth Degree Magazine, The Broadkill Review, Tower of Light Online Magazine, Big Pulp, and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel, an anthology of Oriental fantasy.

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The Daimyo's Harigata

Akemi jerked when the shoji screen slid open and three ladies glided in. One sniffed and wrinkled her nose. Akemi felt her face glow as she hid her dirty hands in her sleeves. This is awful. How can I meet my Lord like this? If I concentrate, I can smell myself.

The three ladies were beautiful, dressed in bright floral kimonos with their hair perfumed and their faces powdered white. They settled in the corner staring. Akemi had studied the social graces with her Aunt as a child, but she was both taller and heavier than most women. Her Aunt would glide and float where she lurched and loomed. Akemi jumped again when a broad man wearing a black kimono and tall hat stalked in and sat.

“Takudo Akemi, I’m glad my samurai found you,” he said. “This is your lucky day! Were things otherwise, we would be wringing a confession out of you in my executioner’s courtyard right now.”

Akemi shivered and bowed. Gods protect us! What does he know? “Thank you, Lord Nakada,” she said without rising. “Please, where’s my daughter?”

Lord Nakada clapped his hands and the shoji screen slid open revealing little Kiku holding the hand of the samurai who’d captured them. Akemi looked up and felt the tension in her gut ease. Her daughter was washed, brushed and dressed in a beautiful silk kimono. Someone’s caring for her. The little girl smiled and tried to run to her, but the samurai held her.

“Your daughter’s fine,” Lord Nakada said. “She’ll be staying with my ladies while you perform a small service for me.”

“I’m not sure how I can help.” Akemi smiled and shrugged. “I’m just a shinobue player,” she said and held up her bamboo flute.

“Liar!” he shouted and Akemi flinched away from the anger that flashed from him like heat from a glowing kiln. Akemi threw herself face down on the tatami mat. “I know about you Takudo Ninjas. Sneak thieves and assassins! I should be locking both you and your daughter in a cage. After you Takudo criminals murdered the young heir, you both would be put to the sword after my samurai had used you for their entertainment!”

“I’m sorry, Lord. Please! I’ll do whatever you ask. Just spare my daughter.” She lay rigid, panting from the pressure of his rage.

After a moment, Lord Nakada nodded. “Better! You walk along the edge of a sword. One slip and it will cut you to the bone.”

Lord Nakada grunted and looked away red-faced. “I want you to recover an item that was stolen from me, a harigata as long as my forearm, made of sandalwood and lacquered to a smooth black finish.”

Akemi felt the three consorts glare over the tops of their fans as she sat up. Akemi panted as if the air had been sucked from her chest. Is he insane? Our lives hang by a thread because a jaded samurai lost a sex toy?

“Um, I’ll do what I can, Lord. But why pursue this particular, ah, item? I’m sure I could buy something as nice in Osaka.”

Lord Nakada’s face froze and the ladies hissed. “No,” he said. “I want that one. No other will do! And you’ll recover it before the new moon wanes.” He grasped the hilt of his sword.

“Yes, Lord!” She bowed to the mat. “But I’ll need more time. I have to learn who stole it before I can recover it.”

“Oh, I know who stole it. I’ve already arranged for you to join the thief’s household. But if I don’t have my property when the next moon appears, your daughter takes your place, eh?”

Akemi opened her mouth to protest, but saw Lord Nakada’s gaze. His face still glowed with anger, but his eyes were flat, cold. The gaze of someone looking at a thing, not a person. A thing he’s not sure he should use or discard. Then she glanced at the samurai with Kiku, and thought her heart would burst. His eyes also were cold and dead, but his gaze was on Kiku. He patted the child’s head and grinned at Akemi.

“My staff will tell you all we know. I don’t want to see you again without my property. For your daughter’s sake, make it soon.” He and the ladies stood and filed out. The last consort led Kiku away as her daughter looked back with tear-filled eyes.

Akemi’s heart thumped in time with the pounding hoof beats of the horse she’d been given. Panting, she yearned for the uncomplicated rhythms of her life as a young wife in her little farming village nestled in the central mountains of Nippon. As if there ever was such a thing. She cracked her mount with the reins, harassing the beast for more speed.

Clan Takudo was anything but a simple farming family. Three generations before, her great grandfather Takudo Yoshi fled Osaka with his family and carved the first rice paddies into the side of their mountain. His Daimyo had lost a disastrous war, and everyone allied to him, from the commanding generals to the lowliest foot soldier, was hunted down and put to the sword. Even the wives and children were executed to insure there would be no future generation seeking vengeance.

Takudo Yoshi understood this: his Lord had been foolish to join the conflict. His retainers paid the price for his arrogance. Such was the fate of the defeated; they were spoils of war owned by the victors.

Many of Yoshi’s peers choose to decapitate their families before committing seppuku themselves. But her great grandfather always was a practical man. He understood his children no longer were of the warrior class, but he passed on his martial skills anyway. At his death, his children and grandchildren were experts in the martial art of ninjitsu, the martial art of war by stealth. So, while other farming villages fell prey to the raids of warring daimyos, samurai who ventured up the slopes of Takudo mountain never returned.

Gone, all gone now. Akemi shivered and wiped tears away with her sleeve. I’m sorry, Grandfather. I know you meant well, but it didn’t save us from the violence. Now I’m losing my baby daughter!

The Clan occasionally took commissions for gold. But never for murder! They weren’t assassins. In the spring, Uncle Niboru had accepted a commission to kidnap the young heir of Eto Shiro. Shiro had been the Lord of Eto Province. When he died, his five-year-old son, Hachiro, was next in line. Shiro’s cousin seized the boy and claimed Regency of Eto Province in his name. This infuriated Shiro’s brother Eto Hiroshi, and he hired the Takudo ninjas to steal the boy back so he could rule in the child’s name.

The team rode off on a moonless night for Eto Province. The mission should have been easy. The local Diamyo were at peace; there was no reason to expect an armed party sneaking in. Instead, the Takudo ninja were met with word of disaster before they reached Eto Castle. The young heir was dead, murdered in his sleep. Worse, Lord Hiroshi was blaming the killing on ninja assassins.

“We’re betrayed!” her father shouted. “That bastard Hiroshi killed the boy so he could seize control in his own name.” He pulled off his black cowl and sighed. “And he’s blaming us for the killing. Ride! Back to the mountain before we’re found.”

After a chaotic run back at the village, the elders ordered guards posted, but essentially hoped Hiroshi would leave them be.

Then one night her father slammed open the shoji screen to her and her husband’s room.

“Get up, both of you! Jiro, get your spear and follow me.”

Jiro jammed his sword into his sash and snatched up his spear. “Is it bandits?”

“No!” father said. “It’s the Eto samurai. The guards spotted them in the valley and are holding them. But we have to hurry. There are too many for those few guards to turn them away. Akemi, take Kiku and run. Head for the caves on the far slope. There are supplies and food stored there.”

Akemi shook her head and rolled out of the futon. “I’m coming with you.” She snatched up her bow from its stand in the corner. “I can fight. too.”

“No!” Father shouted back. “Get my granddaughter to safety. The Eto clan wants blood, not captives. You know what they’ll do if they get their bloody hands on her.” They locked gazes and Akemi shivered. Is it that bad?

She ran into the night with bow and quiver over one shoulder, Kiku tied behind the other. In front of the village temple, she found a churning crowd of crying children and older women. Akemi counted heads to be sure she had everyone, then with shouts and threats led them up the mountain toward the far slope toward safety.

As Akemi ran through the last of the trees into the open slope near the peak, she saw horsemen riding down. The warriors shouted with glee as they spurred their war horses at the unarmed villagers, swords and spears poised. Akemi grasped the breadth of their enemy’s plan with a moment’s thought. They rode up the opposite slope while the main party attacked from below. They intended to overrun the village from above while our men are engaged by the party below. How many are there? We’re caught between hammer and anvil.

The horsemen rode down without slowing even though the villagers fell to their knees screaming for mercy. As the horsemen rode through the women and children, Akemi slid into the bushes downslope. She watched for moment, hoping some would follow, but the few who ran were cut down with sword and spear while the rest were kept in a huddled mass on the ground by the circling riders. Then the Samurai rode in, weapons in hand, expressionless, slashing and stabbing the captives.

Akemi covered her mouth with her hands as the samurai hacked down her sister, her aunts and her little cousins. Long after they died, the samurai chopped and slashed. Numb, Akemi backed away.

As dawn broke, Akemi crept through the village to salvage the family scroll of twenty Takudo generations. At the foot of the mountain, she found the Takudo men. They lay scattered among the trees, arrows skewing their bodies.

They didn’t even have a chance to draw their swords. An ambush, no quarter given. Akemi slowed as she approached the two lying farthest down the slope.

She knelt stroking her husband’s cheek with her one hand and her father’s with the other. Her fingers brushed Jiro’s lips and she felt his kiss. Only now his kiss was a dagger thrust, tearing her flesh. Still she couldn’t pull her hand away, she wouldn’t, not if it would end his kiss, and the pain grew until she shrieked with each breath. Below, bushes rustled and a samurai stepped onto the path.

“How did you manage to escape, pretty girl?” He leered and drew his sword.

All of the deaths contracted into a white-hot flame dancing in her breast. “Murderer!” she shouted and whipped her bow off her shoulder and drew an arrow. With one motion, she notched, pulled and released. Her second followed the first. The samurai was shouting when arrows slammed into his eye and his throat. He spun and fell.

Akemi grinned so hard her cheeks hurt, tears streaming. Shouting, three samurai charged up the path. She shot three arrows as they drew their swords. Two dropped with arrows quivering in their throats. The third spun with an arrow jutting from his shoulder. Akemi was drawing another when a dozen more charged up the slope shouting.

Akemi observed from the distance. I don’t stand a chance against so many swords. But this was drowned out by another voice, “They murdered my family! Make them pay!” So be it.

Shouting “Takudo! Takudo!” she drew and shot. As enemies screamed, tears streamed down her cheeks. When she slapped the top of an empty quiver, Akemi threw aside the bow and snatched up Jiro’s spear. Her vision was tinged red, transforming the samurai into stick figures she longed to dance among, stabbing and slashing. She thrust the gleaming head of the spear forward and tensed, preparing to sprint down the slope. One more battle and then I can die! “Takudo!” she shouted again. Then Kiku squirmed on her back.

Oh my god! I forgot you!

The fire in her heart vanished, leaving Akemi cold and trembling. One living samurai stood among the dead wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He raised his hands in surrender. Before he could move, Akemi darted into bushes. She knew she’d not be captured. She’d trained since childhood for this moment.

Once the sun set, she slipped past the sentries. Only after she was well away did her steps falter. Where am I going? My family’s dead! The rest of the night, she sat in a clearing rocking Kiku.

The next day she walked through a village south of the mountain. She didn’t linger. Overnight, the Eto clan sent out riders posting notice of a bounty of gold for her and Kiku, wealth enough for a poor farming family to live on for a year. She ran after reading the scroll nailed to the headman’s doorpost as the villagers stared.

And so she and Kiku kept moving, surviving on the coins Akemi earned playing her shinobue, until the Eto samurai caught them by the river.

Although she’d been told to ride south to Ise Province by Lord Nakada’s head Samurai, she rode east to Nara Province instead. As dawn colored the sky, she rode her clattering into the stone-paved courtyard of the Todai-ji Temple outside Nara.

A young monk ran out to bar her way. Akemi threw the young acolyte the reins. “I need to see Brother Yuki. I’m his niece, his brother Nor’s daughter. Please!”

The acolyte opened and closed his mouth, and then brought her inside and seated her before the towering bronze Buddha Todai-ji Temple housed.

Her mind whirled as she sat in the statue’s looming shadow seeing only Kiku’s tearful face. The statue of the Enlightened One seemed to smile down with all-knowing benevolence, bidding her to calm herself, assuring her that Kiku would be safe. Akemi dried her tears and shivered.

Holy One, I hope that’s true, but I’m so afraid! Akemi breathed deep and pulled the family scroll from her obi. She set the scroll at the Buddha’s feet. Please, great Buddha, protect and preserve her. If she dies, this history will be ashes in the wind. Akemi breathed deep and forced her daughter from her mind. I can’t rescue her from Lord Nakada’s keep, so I’ll have to move forward.

So what do I do now? My whole world has been turned upside down.

Her father’s words came to her. “To prepare for battle, you must consider your life as an arrow on the archer’s bow. Your target must be your only thought. One life, one arrow.”

Yes, father, but I don’t know what my target is. I can feel the powers moving around me, blowing me about like a leaf in a gale. But the only piece of the puzzle she had was the harigata. Get that, and maybe the rest will be clear? Focusing on this, Akemi pushed aside all other thoughts. Everything else is moot if I don’t solve this. Still her heart thumped in her breast.

Takudo Yuki, her father’s brother, had started life living on the mountain like the rest of the clan. His prowess at the way of the sword was a legend as she grew up. But he had followed a wandering monk when he was young and never returned. Still her father spoke of him with great pride. “He is third behind the Abbott. He’ll be in charge of the temple one day.”

Akemi stared at her uncle, trying to glean some hope from him. His head was shaved, and he was dressed in the patched, orange robe of a Buddhist monk. But the muscles on his bare arms were thick and corded, and he walked with cat-like grace.

Akemi described the attack on Takudo mountain, her capture and her bizarre mission. “I’m sure they’re going to murder Kiku and me, no matter what. But I can’t think of a way to avoid it. They have Kiku!”

Her uncle grunted as he pulled at his sparse beard. “I agree. This makes no sense. Lord Nakada is a clever warlord. I’ve been hearing gossip for years on how he dominates the central provinces with his schemes. He just concluded an alliance with the Eto clan by marrying off his sister. So why would he risk public embarrassment if you’re caught?” He blew a puff of air out his cheeks and shook his head.

“Insane or not, I have to steal that silly toy back,” Akemi said. “Do you still have ninja tools?”

“Yes, I still have my gear, although I’ve not touched it in decades.” He stood and stepped to the door. “Did Lord Nakada give you a letter of introduction to Lord Takatora? Good! I’ll write one as well. But after you recover his lordship’s harigata, bring it here. Nothing makes sense, and that thing is at the center of all this insanity.”

(continued on page 2)


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