Publishing Announcement: INVINCIBLE

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In an Empire beset by internal rebellion and ferocious yaomo, the elite Shenwujun stand ready to defend human civilization. Among the Shenwujun there is none finer than Ensign Zhang Tianyou, who earned the nickname Zhang the Invincible. During a mission to quash a nascent rebellion, a Shenwujun detachment discovers evidence that the Grand Union is supporting the rebels. Zhang is tasked to investigate and destroy this new threat.

But will Zhang the Invincible meet his match at the hands of the rebel called Han the Demon Sword?

I’m pleased to announce the publication of INVINCIBLE, a historical xianxia novella which won an Honorable Mention at the Q1 2017 Writers of the Future Contest. First published on Steemit, it has now been formatted into an ebook for easy reading.

INVINCIBLE can be purchased on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip for just USD $2.99.

To enjoy a 30% discount, be sure to share my Payhip page on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to my next story.

TWO LIVES: Part 5 of 5

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Two scenes in a row. That was intense. I wiped the sweat from my brow—and then I realized I was mimicking the upwards parry Akira had used. My heart thumped in my chest. Blood pumped to my fists and feet.

I had to get a grip. That battle was long in the past. I had to leave it there.

At the shrine, I saw a large golden maneki neko. Gathered around the statue was a collection of smaller cats, their left paws raised. Legend held that keeping a maneki neko at a place of business was sure to bring good fortune. Which, no doubt, explained their popularity in Singapore and Japan.

There was a plaque nearby. It read: A manner of joining hands in prayer. Relax, join hands in front of your chest and close your eyes. Raise your left hand to the height of your left ear and mew. Your prayers will be answered.

I smiled. The Japanese sure had some strange customs. Then again, in Singapore, Chinese Buddhists pray by grasping burning incense sticks at chest height and bowing deep and often, sometimes punctuating it by waving their hands up and down in exaggerated motions. What would a Japanese think if he saw that?

Nevertheless, I clasped my hands together and nodded. Japan was a land of kami, and in that sense little different from the branch of Buddhism I had grown up with.

A strange thought popped into my head. Is there anything you want?

I’d experienced too much to dismiss it as a random thought. Instead, I smiled. How did Akira’s story end?

Here.


I was a ronin again.

Hattori was true to his word. He paid me for the job and erased my name from official mentions. The dead bandits were explained away as ‘self-defence’. The bandit chief himself was reported to have ‘died from his wounds’. I couldn’t think of a better outcome.

With the bandits eliminated, the merchant no longer needed yojimbo. With Hana dead, I had nothing tying me down to the city. I tried to stay, but I was surrounded by ghosts. Her smile in the moonlight near the river we had met, the tinkle of her laughter, the way she tugged at my sleeve when she wanted my attention.

I’d never known what she saw in a ronin like me. Perhaps I never would.

Summer surrendered to autumn. I continued teaching at the temple, but already I felt restless. The city felt a strange place, an alien world of noise and colour and strange customs. There was no place here for ronin like me. It was time for a new city, a new life.

After the final class of the season, I gathered my worldly belongings and prepared to leave. It wasn’t much: the clothes on my back, my weapons, my purse, a small sack holding travel essentials. Everything else I bequeathed to the temple.

I left Hiro with the monks. They could take care of it better than me. The road was no place for a cat used to life in the city. All I had left to remember Hana was the omamori I had never returned.

I headed north. I resumed the discipline of the road easily enough. Walk until tired, rest until ready, keep on walking. Sleep under the stars on dry nights, under trees during the rains, inside inns and temples if they were available and if I had the funds. For sustenance I had tea leaves and rice, and I harvested wild fruits and tubers where available.

I passed through an assortment of villages and towns, taking odd jobs for pay, but never staying for too long. I found no reason to stay, so I kept walking.

As winter approached, the days shortened and the air cooled. Falling ill now was dangerous. A man could freeze to death by the road and no one would notice. Or care. I quickened my pace, heading to the next city. I would shelter there for the winter. After that, well, who knows?

I pushed on, going further and further without rest. The first snows fell, dusting the world in white. I wrapped my haori tightly around myself and endured the cold. My destination was in sight, a black dot in the distance, past a sward of dried and yellowing grass.

I reached the gates in the evening. I pleaded with the sole watchman to let me in, and eventually he relented. At least he showed me the way to the nearest temple.

The snow grew thicker, occasionally slipping under my kimono and freezing my flesh. My geta sank deeper and deeper, barely keeping my feet clear of the layer of white. People retreated indoors, where they could find light and warmth. I doubted I could afford a room at an inn. But monks would never turn away a man like me.

Past the torii, I had to climb a series of stairs to reach the temple. Cold sweat clung to my flesh. I sneezed, wiping my nose against my sleeve. I planted my feet carefully, retaining my balance on the slippery stone.

The stairs fed into the sando, the narrow road that approached the temple. Two lines of toro lit the way. In the distance I just about made out the silhouette of the worship hall. There was another building on my right. Light beckoned from the windows. Perhaps I could find the monks there.

But first, I had one more thing to do.

To my left was a small pavilion. A temizuya. I checked the chozubachi; the stone water vessel was full. Rolling up my sleeve, I took a dipper and poured water on my left hand. The water shocked my skin and numbed my fingers. I rinsed my right hand and mouth, then dipped the handle into the water.

Now ritually pure, I wiped my hands on my hakama and my mouth on my sleeve, and headed for the lit building. By the light of the toro I saw a petite woman approach.

A woman?

She wore no makeup, but her long hair was tied into a neat bun. She wore a haori dyed a pure white, and a hakama the colour of blood.

She was not a nun. She was a miko.

This was not a Buddhist temple. This was a Shinto shrine.

She studied me as she approached. She saw the swords at my side and bowed, deep and low.

“Good evening,” she said.

I returned her bow. “Good evening.”

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I need a place to stay for the winter.”

She smiled broadly, fire dancing in her eyes.

“Come inside. We’d be pleased to have a guest.”


Is that everything? I wondered.

It is enough.

Another life. Another city. Another chance to try again. I hoped it was enough for Akira. For me.

I bowed, and walked away.

Here I was, living a life utterly different from, yet eerily similar to, the one Akira had led. We were ronin who had studied the sword. We were thinkers, not talkers. Buddhism had shaped us. We had lovers named for flowers. He had lost Hana. Mine was still around.

A quiet voice, deep and calm, flooded my mind.

You have one more chance with her. Don’t waste it.

Akira’s voice. My voice, reaching across the centuries.

I won’t.

In the evening, in my hotel, I brought out my laptop. My lover was online. I opened Facebook Messenger and touched my fingers to the keys.

Something funny happened earlier today…


The places and performances described at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura are as I have experienced them in July 2016.

Earlier chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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Interested in more stories from me? Check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

TWO LIVES: Part 4 of 5

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My heart thudded sharply in my chest. I hadn’t seen that coming.

Cold crept through my chest. I breathed through it, focusing blanking out everything but the cycling of air through my lungs. A shard of grief embedded in my heart. Centuries removed from the event, I still felt the echo of the trauma; I couldn’t begin to comprehend what Akira had felt under his mask.

But I wasn’t him. I am me.

No, not quite. I am he, and he is me. How else could I have seen these images, spotted the parallels between his life and mine?

My parents beckoned me to go. I followed them numbly, trying to immerse myself into the flow of information. It was like trying to grasp water; every time I thought I had something it slipped through my fingers. Meaningless babble filled my words. Vague impressions lightly touched my body.

I paused to look around, careful to avoid bumping into people. We were heading towards a temple. Through the doorway I saw figures arranged on an altar. People prayed before them in their own ways. Some clasped their hands and closed their eyes, others added a bow or lowered their heads.

But that wasn’t the temple I remembered. The one I had known was…empty.


It was a quiet day. The children had gone. The priests were busy with their chores. That left me free to practice the sword.

In the empty courtyard, I practiced draws and cuts, thrusts and slashes, body slams and grappling techniques. With every stroke I imagined cutting down a bandit.

The monks continued their chores, already used to my regimen. Hiro was wandering the grounds somewhere, hunting for mice and other treasures. No one came to disturb me. Good.

Hana’s absence had left a hole in my heart, as though an unseen demon had clawed out a chunk of me. In the morning, I had lit incense for Hana and her family, and dedicated an hour of prayers. The funeral had been carried out long ago, well before I had returned to the city. This was the best I could do.

My chest throbbed. I kept training. My services were not required today. My employer said I needed time to grieve. He was right – but grieving can wait. The sword came first. Soon, there would come a time for vengeance. I had to be ready for that moment of truth.

I switched to my wakizashi, reacquainting myself with the feel of the smaller sword, studying how the length and balance affected my techniques. If I had to fight indoors, this would be my primary weapon; the longer katana would be too unwieldy.

A visitor stepped into the courtyard. His bamboo hat shielded his face from sight, but I could feel his eyes on me. He wore a dark green kimono with a white collar, matched with a heavy grey hakama. At his left hip he carried a daisho, and tucked into his obi was a jitte.

He was no ordinary samurai; he was a police samurai.

I sheathed my sword and bowed. He bowed back.

“Are you the ronin who lives in the temple?” the samurai asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I heard what happened to your woman. On behalf of the police, you have my condolences.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you doing well?”

Every living being must die. It is simply the way of things. Instead of dwelling on her death, the head monk had advised me to remember what made Hana’s life worth celebrating, and how I could live my life to honour her memory. It almost worked.

“Yes.” I paused. “But you did not come here simply to ask after me.”

He smiled. “Of course. Please, step outside with me. We have much to talk about.”

“Such as?”

“It is not proper to speak of bloodshed before the Buddha.”

I exited the temple with him. As we strolled down the street, he began speaking.

“Two months ago, we heard that a mysterious ronin cut down a pair of bandits in the marketplace. One was slain, the other’s hands were cut off. Leaving aside the legality of the incident, we took the maimed bandit into custody.

“We spread the word that he bled to death. In reality, we locked him up and questioned him rigorously. He revealed to us the location of the bandits’ hideout. We have since confirmed the information, and are putting together a task force to apprehend the criminals. You may come with us if you wish.”

“Why me?”

“What they did to your woman demands vengeance.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“A job. Monetary compensation. And the police would not look too closely into your activities on the day the bandits were cut down.”

If the police had truly wanted to question me, they could have found me anytime they pleased. They must have felt that dealing with the bandits was a higher priority than a ronin lodging in a temple.

“You look sceptical,” he added.

The money would be nice. The promise of reduced police attention would be a bonus, assuming he spoke the truth. But the rewards were ancillary. As soon as he had made the offer I had made my decision.

After all, what warrior would not avenge his woman?

I shook my head.

“I’m in,” I said.


The samurai called himself Hattori. At sunset I met his team of twelve lesser samurai at the city gates. They were clad in helmets and suits of mail armour, reinforced with plates on their sleeves, thighs and shins. Their primary armaments were polearms—arresting tools, not weapons of war—but they all carried swords by their sides. All of them had horses.

I was the only one without armour, a non-lethal implement or a horse. What I did have was Hana’s omamori, secured to my obi. None of them commented on my equipment. The moment I mounted Hattori’s horse, we set off.

The bandits lived in a house outside the city. Formerly an inn, the owners had long ago abandoned it, giving the criminals a perfect hideout. It was situated inside a forest by the main road, with a lone dirt path providing access.

The samurai left the horses a distance away and gathered for a strategy meeting.

“We will split into two groups,” Hattori said. “Sumimori, you will take six men and secure the perimeter. Mine will attack the house and apprehend the criminals. We should expect at least six bandits inside the house. In case we need reinforcements, Sumimori’s team will double as our reserve force.

“We will make our approach through the trees, parallel to the road. Sumimori, your group will go first and deal with any guards and traps within the forest. When you’re done, assemble on the left side of the road and mimic the call of an owl. I will reply with a similar call. My team will pass through the forest to the right of the path. When we’re in position, I will sound the attack with my jinkai. Sumimori, if you are discovered, blow your own jinkai and my team will rush in.”

Sumimori gathered his men and crept off into the night. I stayed with Hattori.

There was nothing left to say, nothing more to do but wait. Crickets sang all around us. The remaining samurai checked their equipment and gathered around their leader. I tugged at my daisho, ensuring they were firmly held in place, and joined them. Hattori retrieved his jinkai from his horse. Held in a basket, it was a large conch shell with a brass mouthpiece that served as a trumpet.

Time crawled. I focused on my breath, clearing my mind. There was no room for thoughts of revenge, of duty, of Hana. Only victory.

A long, low whoop filled the air.

Hattori placed his hands to his mouth and issued a similar call.

“Let’s go, he whispered.

He led the way into the forest. I followed. Most of the samurai was city dwellers, unused to the forest. Now and then I heard the snapping of twigs, the rustling of leaves, the soft thuds of weapons bumping into trees. I moved deliberately, keeping my swords pinned to my side with one hand and the other outstretched to detect unseen obstacles.

Reaching the tree line, I saw the house under the light of the moon. It was a sturdy two-story structure with a nearby stable. Long shadows crept under the roof. The windows were dark. Nobody seemed to be awake.

Something moved within the shadows. A man. He walked in a small circle, swinging his arms and stretching his neck. In the dark I couldn’t tell if he were armed, but there was no reason to assume he wasn’t.

Hattori placed his jinkai to his lips and blew a deep two-tone call.

Samurai boiled out of the woods, screaming at the top of their lungs. I drew my wakizashi and followed.

The guard stood his ground. Bellowing something unintelligible, he drew his sword and slashed uselessly at the air. He must be trying to scare the police – but they kept coming.

A samurai charged him, sasumata in hand. The bandit hacked away at the spear fork to no effect. The samurai ensnared the bandit in the crook of the sasumata’s horns and drove him against the wall. Undeterred, the guard flailed about, his sword passing dangerously close to the samurai’s limbs.

Another police samurai arrived, this one armed with a sodegarami. Approaching the bandit from the side, he thrust the sleeve entangler just as the bandit slashed again. The sword clashed against the sodegarami’s head, lodging between its forward prongs. Sliding his weapon down, the samurai drew a tight circle, capturing the bandit’s hand with the pole arm’s rear-facing hooks, and yanked. The sword flew away.

Two more samurai pounced on the halpless bandit, wrestling him to the ground. Inside the house, men yelled. Light spilled out the windows. The front door opened. The faint glow of a lantern revealed a huge man with a katana. His eyes locked on the nearest target.

Me.

Screaming, he raised his katana. The blade caught on the doorframe. As he struggled to pull it free, I thrust into his exposed throat. Retracting the wakizashi, I rammed my shoulder into him.

We tumbled into the house. The dying bandit flopped over, clutching at his throat. To my left, a pair of bandits stormed through an open door.

A police samurai barged past me, going for the left-hand bandit. I raised my weapon and approached the other one. He snarled a curse and rushed me with a frenzy of wild sword strokes. I leapt back, but I felt steel slicing across my arm.

He slashed again. I stepped in, raising my sword. My blade met his with a loud clang. I flowed around his slash, brought my wakizashi high and took off his head.

I looked down. The sword had scored my right forearm. Only bone, minimal damage.

The other police samurai seemed to be in trouble. He held a short jitte against his forearm, while the bandit had a much longer sword. The samurai backpedalled, evading a slash. The bandit stepped in and cut again.

The samurai shot in, blocking the blade with his jitte. Quick as a flash, he hooked the sword with the prong of his jitte and grabbed his opponent’s left hand. The samurai wheeled his arms around, and suddenly he was on his feet, holding the bandit’s weapon. More samurai swarmed the disarmed bandit, tackling him down.

Another police samurai ran past me. Hattori.

“Upstairs!” he shouted. “Follow me!”

I obeyed, running right behind him. Hattori had a te yari, a spear specially shortened for room fighting. This one had a crossbar mounted behind the tip. It seemed he wasn’t interested in taking prisoners.

The room next to us had a staircase. As we pounded up the stairs, I heard men shouting from above. Hattori yelled back, jabbing his te yari. I stepped back and down, giving him room to work. Over his shoulder, I saw a bandit waving a sword. Two more bandits waited nearby, watching the fight.

Hattori aimed high, going for the bandit’s face. The man moved to guard—but it was a feint. Hattori swooped low, hooked the crossbar behind his ankle and pulled. The man went down with a resounding crash. Hattori adjusted his aim and thrust. A high-pitched shriek filled the air and curdled my blood. He’d just been unmanned.

The surviving bandits turned and fled to a nearby room.

Ike!” Hattori urged. Go!

We chased the bandits into the room. Hattori stepped through the door, spear in hand. A bandit blindsided him, tackling him against a wall. Entering the room, I kicked the attacker in the temple. The bandit turned over on his side. Hattori released his weapon and grappled with the bandit.

That left one more bandit in the room. He wore an expensive indigo-dyed kimono and a fine grey hakama. A long scar crossed his right eye. A short sword dangled from his right hand.

“Are you the bandit chief?” I asked.

He snorted. “And what if I am?”

I circled to his right. “You killed my woman.”

He leered. “Really? I can’t remember. I’ve slain so many over the years, after having my way with them. The sight of women on all fours, begging for mercy, really gets the blood going. You know what I mean?”

He continued spewing filth, circling as he spoke. The banter was a distraction. He was slowly approaching me, sliding his feet forward to shorten the distance between us. I let him continue, trying to get an angle into his diminished right side.

He was in range. I stepped in, rearing my body up.

He cut at my neck.

I swooped in low, ducking under his stroke. With a loud kiai I cut through his belly. I stepped through and whirled around.

The bandit was down, blood seeping into the tatami under my feet.

I glanced at Hattori. Two more samurai had come to assist, one to hold down the prisoner and the other to tie him up.

I pricked my ears and listened. Men spoke to each other in conversational tones. There were no more orders, no desperate cries, no ringing of steel of steel. The metallic tang of blood intermingled with the odour of faeces and urine. I counted the number of men we had met along the way. Six of them. The bandits had been dealt with.

The bandit chief moaned, slowly bleeding to death. I wondered why he didn’t resist. Then I saw what had happened to his spine.

I flicked the blood from my sword. It splashed at Hattori’s feet.

“Looks like you’ve gotten your revenge,” he said.

I nodded numbly. I didn’t feel anything. Not satisfaction, not joy, just… calm. An understanding that the wheel of karma had turned once again, like it always had and always will. This wouldn’t bring Hana back—but it would stop the bandits from harming any more innocents.

“He needs a physician,” I said.

Hattori shook his head. “You cut through his spine. With a wound that deep, we should just put him out of his misery.”

“I shall leave that decision to you.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“He’s…no longer a threat. If I did anything else in front of a police samurai, I could be charged with murder.”

Hattori chuckled grimly. “Come. We still have work to do.”


Earlier chapters: Part 1, 2 and 3.

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For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 2 of 5

River

I sat by the river and stared at the water. It seemed still, but the leaves drifting across the surface betrayed a hidden current, illuminated in the amber hue of the setting sun.

No luck finding work. My funds were running low, and I couldn’t remember the last time I ate anything more substantial than a bowl of rice. The daimyo wasn’t hiring, and in this age of peace what place was there for a man of the sword?

Perhaps it was time to move on. Surely there had to be somewhere I could—

Nyaaa!

A cat. A white bobtail with black and brown patches adorning its coat. It slinked up to me and peered curiously at me. I rubbed its forehead. It bumped its head against my leg and snaked around my ankle.

The creature looked back at me, called again, and trotted off. A few moments later, it stopped, sat on its haunches, and looked back at me.

“Do you want something?” I asked.

Nyaaaaaaaa.

It was longer, more insistent. Maybe the cat wanted me to follow it.

I got up and dusted myself off. The cat turned around and padded down the riverbank. I followed.

A woman sat by the riverbank, massaging her right ankle. The cat pounced on her lap and purred. She smiled, rubbing the back of its ear.

The woman’s face, neck and shoulders were plastered in white makeup. An elaborate hair bun towered over her head, held in place with a comb and a ribbon. A pair of red fabric flowers, hana kazashi, rested on either side of her forehead. She had simple sandals on her feet, but her kimono was made of silk. A deep blue silk kimono, embroided with pink flowers.

A woman of means.

Konnichiwa,” I said.

She faced me. Her gaze transfixed me. For a moment, it felt like she was peering into my soul—and I was looking at hers. Her eyes were as calm as a placid lake, and as dark as the night. She had a pleasant demeanour, and her profile not unattractive. More than that, she was… familiar.

But she was a stranger.

Konnichiwa,” she said, setting the cat aside. “I’d stand, but I fear I sprained my ankle.”

“Do you need help?”

She held out her hand. “Onegaishimasu.”

I took her hand and helped her up. She stood awkwardly, placing her weight on her left ankle, but she seemed none the worse for wear. She swept off the dirt from her clothes and bowed. Low enough to show respect, but not the deep bow commoners granted to samurai. I returned the gesture.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said. Thank you very much.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

Her cat coiled itself around her wounded leg. She smiled down at it. “Hiro seems to like you.”

“How so?”

“Hiro rarely approaches people. You seem to be a nice person.”

“I do my best.”

“I’m sure you do.” Sparks danced in her eyes. “I saw you while I was walking down the river. You looked pretty sad, sitting by the river like yourself. Are you well?”

Women do not speak so forthrightly like this. Who was she?

“Yes.”

“Is that so? Are you a ronin?”

“Yes.”

She made a low, soft sound. “Times are difficult for ronin.”

“Always have been.”

“You seem troubled. Is there anything I could do to help?”

I shook my head. “I was just…thinking. I’m not in a mood for talking.”

“Ah.”

Her lips curved upwards. Reaching up, she pulled her ribbon out of her hair.

“Here. You can give it back when you want to talk.”

I blinked. She was an odd one. But I wasn’t above accepting charity.

“Thanks,” I said.

I tucked the ribbon into my obi. It felt ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But with her, it felt… right.

Bowing, she said, “I shall take my leave.”

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“What’s your name?”


The scene faded out. Reality crashed into my brain. I bit back a curse. What was her name?

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the scene, willing it to return. I saw an outline of her face against the dark. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged. I slowed down the scene, replaying it again and again.

Hana.

That was her name. And mine?

I loosened my jaw, relaxed my tongue, willing for sound to flow out.

Akira.

No family names. No clan names. That wasn’t right. Had they been lost to the mists of time? Or was I simply lost in some elaborate daydream?

No answers arrived.

Hana. Japanese for flower. And my fiancé was named after one. Either it was a remarkable coincidence or the byproduct of an overactive imagination. Given my profession, it was even odds on both.

The tour group dispersed into family units. Mine headed for a corner of the park, purportedly a life-sized reproduction of an Edo street. Every house was an exhibition, offering a snapshot into daily life. One house held a fisherman gathering his catch. Another showed a merchant displaying his wares.

Down the street, I caught sight of a man in a topknot sitting on the floor, cradling an umbrella. A nearby display explained that less well-off samurai often supplemented their income by making and selling umbrellas and other items.

But Akira—I—wasn’t a craftsman. I was—


I wasn’t clever with my hands the way artisans were, and it was too late to start now. I could, however, read and write. And there was always work for a literate man.

“That is all for today,” I said.

The students bowed. I bowed back. The formalities of ritual observed, they reverted to being children. Climbing to their feet, they rushed out the door, giggling and chatting. Some were already organising teams for games. Dusting off my hakama, I rose and stepped out of the hall.

Everywhere I went, I could always count on the generosity of monks. The monks of this city were no different. Perhaps they saw in me a fellow inhabitant of the dewdrop world, an existence as fragile as a puff of smoke, yet anchored by an unbreakable code. Ronin I might be, but unlike the bureaucrats who played at being samurai, I would never sell the steel of my weapons. I was still a man of the sword—but sometimes it meant being a man of the pen at times.

The monks here allowed me to sleep under their roof, and I earned my keep by teaching children how to read and write. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any means, but it was infinitely better than starving to death.

As I entered the temple courtyard, I saw a familiar face. Hana.

Ohisashiburi desu,” she called, bowing. It’s been a while.

Ohisashiburi,” I agreed.

Today, Hana wore a pink kimono with yellow floral decorations. Yellow hana kazashi hung in her hair. She had painted her face and neck in dazzling white, and her eyebrows were shaped into gentle crescents.

“I see you’ve found a place,” she said.

“For now.” Reaching into my obi, I removed a carefully folded length of red silk. “I believe this is yours.”

Smiling, she revealed a mouthful of black-dyed teeth.

“Thank you,” she said, tucking her ribbon into her obi. “You remembered.”

“A man never takes what belongs to another.”

Her ribbon had tied me here as surely as a promise. I couldn’t leave the city without giving it back. I had redoubled my efforts, and found my current profession. And if I had absconded, she would only have lost a ribbon

“How did you find me?” I asked.

Her eyes twinkled. “I have many friends.”

“That’s it?”

She giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “I saw you teaching here once. But I was too busy to speak to you then. I’m making up for it now.”

“Ah.”

“I didn’t expect you to be a teacher, though. I heard you need to be a talker to be a teacher. But you… you’re not a talker.”

I shrugged.

Another giggle. “Hora! You’re too quiet. I think you prefer to let your actions do your talking, and do your thinking before you act.”

“Just how do you know so much about me?”

“I just know things about people.”

She was a weird one. I could not underestimate her. And I still didn’t know what, exactly, she did. if indeed she had a job at all.

“Do you like teaching?”

“It’s a job.”

“You are a man of the sword. Perhaps I have a better opportunity for you.”

“Do tell.”

“My father’s friend is a merchant. Lately he has come into money, and he fears bandits are targeting him. He wishes to hire a bodyguard.”

“A yojimbo?” I echoed. “I suppose in this age there is still a need for warriors.”

“Unfortunate, but true. Will you take the job?”

“How could I not?”


The world melted. The scene didn’t fade so much as blur, temporarily ceding to reality. Every time I took a step, I felt like I was lifting two feet at once: one shoe-clad foot in this world; a rough, exposed foot in a cheap clog in another.

The street was empty. It wasn’t right. Cities weren’t so quiet, not in the day. The ghosts of men and women brushed past me, commoners in cheap attire, geisha with their painted faces and elaborate clothing, a group of armed and armoured samurai on patrol. It was quiet here, but if I pricked my ears, I could just about make out the hollering of merchants, the laughter of children, the haggling of women, the distant echoes of a long-forgotten past.

For all that, I was not losing my mind. Long experience with flashbacks and sensory overloads and meltdowns had acquainted me with the ragged edge of sanity. This was not it. I was far from the threshold. This past life experience, whatever it was, felt wrong…but at a deeper level, it was right. Like a long-forgotten memory of a distant time and place, suddenly unfolding from depths of my mind and demanding to be remembered.

Was I supposed to learn something? Was there a connection with this life?

Drawing a deep breath, I focused on the present, looking past the ghosts to see where I was going. Presently a tall man loomed before me, his head turned elsewhere. As I prepared to step aside, he looked at me and—


I hated crowds. It wasn’t just the noise of people competing to be heard, the heat and odour of so many people packed together, the constant jostling and bumping. It was the fact that someone could slide in next to you and thrust a blade into your belly before you had time to react.

Keeping one hand on my daisho, I navigated through the crowd. The commoners — those who saw me — scurried out of the way. I didn’t mind. Every extra shaku was an extra moment to react, to draw, to cut.

My client didn’t mind, too. Having a yojimbo was as much a status symbol as it was a necessity for the rich. Without one, he was just another man on the street; with me around, lesser beings had to give way to him.

The client had spoken of his admiration for samurai, of how he had mingled with them at clubs and business meetings. He wore the distinctive topknot of a samurai too, and his expensive silk kimono was embroided in silvery metallic thread, but he lacked a daisho. But why should he wear one, when he could rent mine?

The sun climbed high in the sky. Peddlers redoubled their cries, shouting out their wares: sweet potatoes, dried fish, soba, bean paste soup. The crowd grew thicker with every step. I kept one hand on my katana and the other on my purse. I stole a glance behind me. The merchant was sticking close to me, also discreetly guarding his money. He had just concluded a business deal, and it would not do to lose his profits to a thief.

I returned my attention to the crowd. There was a ripple ahead of me to my right. Someone was going against the flow of traffic, coming my way. I shifted my left hand to the sheath of my katana, my right to my handle.

A man stepped through the crowd. He looked at me, at my daisho, and nodded perfunctorily. His gaze shifted above and behind my shoulder, and his eyes narrowed. He held his right hand close to his leg, cocked at an unnatural angle.

Knife!

Yelling, he flipped the tanto around, braced it at his hip, and charged.

I stood my ground. Let him come. At the last moment I stepped aside, putting myself between me and the merchant. Bellowing a kiai, I drew my katana and arced it into a slash.

At the last moment, he swerved, rushing me. My sword cut clean through him. But his dead weight slammed into me. Something sharp pricked my right forearm. I crashed my shoulder into him. He fell to the ground, and from the mess I knew he was done.

“Help!” the merchant yelled.

A second attacker rushed through the crowd, sword held high. He slashed. I leapt away, bumping into the merchant. Metal scraped against my sternum. He raised his sword and slashed again.

I stepped into the attack with a rising cut. Hot blood showered over my face. Spinning the sword around, I slammed the pommel into his temple, driving him to the ground. He tried to pick himself up, but his hands were gone. He stared at the stumps in wide-eyed horror as blood gushed from the wounds. I stomped him in the face and he went still.

I scanned again. The street was rapidly emptying. Passers-by fled, screaming and calling for help. The merchant was rooted to the spot, his mouth agape. Blood flowed down my blade and ran over my hands. My kimono flapped loosely.

“You’re injured,” the merchant said.

I wiped the blood away, revealing a thin red line scoring my chest. More blood welled from two spots on my forearm.

“I’ll be fine,” I grunted. “Let’s go.”


I stepped around the passer-by and reminded myself to breathe. The battle had been so real—yet so distant, as though it were happening to someone else, and I was merely borrowing his eyes.

A faint ache emanated from my chest. Once again I felt the blades scraping across my bones. I glanced down, reminding myself that I was well. But there was a pair of moles on my forearm. The same places I’d been wounded back then.

A coincidence? Or something else?

Our next stop was a collection of ninja weapons and equipment. Unlike the earlier skit these were authentic replicas of tools described in ninjutsu texts. There was a short, straight sword, distinct from the long, curved katana; multiple types of shuriken, including stars and darts; a foldable rope ladder for infiltration. My heart quickened. Here was the kit used by spies, murderers and cowardly…

Cowardly?

I was a civilian. Neither samurai nor ronin. Why would I care about such things?

The world spun. It felt like I was merging with Akira, his thoughts and emotions leaking into mine. I slipped out of the house of weapons and braced myself.

Ghostly babble filled my ears, strange scents invaded my nostrils, and a wet sticky sensation spread across my chest. I touched my hands to my hips.

And I fell.

You can read Part 1 here.

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If you would like more fiction from me, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.

TWO LIVES: Part 1 of 5

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Summer in Hokkaido was unlike the summers I have known. In Singapore, so close to the equator, summers were hot and humid, the sun so fierce it glazed the world in subtle hues of orange. Here, the air was cold and crisp, so cool I had to keep my jacket on all the time. The light was different, too, framing instead of drowning, bringing out the blues of the skies and the greens of the earth.

It was the second day of our group tour. It had started on an evil note: a visit to Jigokudani, better known as Hell Valley. Hot springs and mineral-rich streams issued thick sulfurous clouds, choking the air and closing off lungs. The guide had explicitly warned off anyone who had respiratory ailments. I stayed long enough to snap a couple of photos before beating a tactical retreat.

The other highlight of the day’s schedule was Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura. A theme park based on city life in the Edo period. Tokugawa had destroyed his rivals, uniting all of Japan. The shogun ruled the nation, while the daimyo retained their authority over their holdings. The ancient class system was rigid and ossified, the bureaucracy ruled all, and the way of the sword had come to an end.

Stepping off the bus, I followed the guide to the entrance. At the gate, figures of samurai with katana and armour stood next to greeters dressed in stereotypical all-black ninja outfits. A man and a woman dressed in period costumes stood at the gates, welcoming us in Japanese and English and Mandarin. They weren’t completely authentic; I saw wires snaking to earpieces and radios.

The guide issued us our tickets. The greeters exchanged them for pamphlets. Glancing at the map, I stepped through the open gate and—


Summer had come. The days were growing longer, the nights warmer. Sweat soaked through my kimono and stained my haori. My hakama clung to my legs with every step. I was long used to it; I had walked countless ri in my ancient geta, and no doubt I would cover countless more in the cheaply-made wooden clogs. A familiar ache pervaded my muscles. I ignored them. My destination was in sight.

A city. A real city. Walls of unyielding stone stretched along the perimeter. The road—a paved road, built for carriages and horses—led to the sole gate that controlled access into and out of the city.

A pair of armed men stood guard next to the massive double doors. Both men carried yari in their hands, the shafts planted firmly against the ground. They wore simple iron helmets and chest armour, and under those they wore cheap shitagi and hakama. As I approached, they sized me up. I felt their eyes crawling across my face, down my clothing, and to my obi.

They bowed.

These men had many things I did not. Jobs. Homes. Maybe families. But I had two things they did not: a katana and a wakizashi worn by my side. The daisho that was the hallmark of the warrior class.

“Good morning, sir,” they said in unison.

These men were ashigaru. Ordinary foot soldiers of common blood. In some domains they were considered samurai, in others they were not. Apparently, the local custom placed ashigaru beneath me.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Are you expecting trouble?”

“There are bandits in the area,” the older one said. “We have been asked to reinforce the police.”

And where there were bandits, there was work for a man who lived by the sword.

“I see,” I said.

“Sir, what is your purpose in coming here?”

“I seek employment,” I replied truthfully.

Both men glanced at each other, barely hiding their disdain. If my cheap clothes and lack of a horse hadn’t given it away, now they knew who I am. I was no true samurai, just a masterless ronin. A man with no place in society, doomed to an existence as ephemeral as the dewdrop world.

“The daimyo is not currently recruiting,” the younger guard said, in a tone only a shade removed from naked disrespect.

“Perhaps there are other opportunities,” I said mildly.

“Perhaps,” the senior man echoed.

After a cursory inspection, they let me pass. I stepped through the gates, letting the road guide my feet.


—I blinked.

What was that?

It was like my mind had been transported to another time and place, leaving my body in modern-day Japan. Images and sense-impressions flooded my brain, superimposing themselves over my current experience. And just as abruptly, here I was again.

Was I imagining things? Or was that something else?

I grabbed my bottle and chased that thought with a gulp of water, but no new fresh insights surfaced.

Well, whoever he was, I could sympathise with the ronin. I was one too, in my own way: instead of two swords I wielded a laptop and a smartphone. I was presently carrying them on my person, the computer in my backpack and the phone in my pocket. Like him, I had no formal employer; I’d slipped into the nebulous existence of the freelancer since I completed my education, and had never left. I practice a blade-based martial art, and, no doubt, so did he.

Coincidence? Or something else?

The group was moving on. I could ponder the vision later. I followed them down the main road, where we queued up for a live performance. It seemed to be highly popular: ahead of me, dozens of young Japanese teenagers chattered excitedly, while behind tourists of all ages conversed in their native tongues. Others sneaked away to the smoking zone.

Studying the nearby buildings, a sense of deja vu descended on me. I had seen my fair share of similar designs: documentaries, encyclopedias, Age of Empires, Rorouni Kenshin. But this felt different. The gently curved tiled roofs, the oversized eaves, the heavy wooden support columns, the dimness that the sun could not banish. It felt like I had lived here, somehow, though I had never visited Japan before.

Odd.

The performance was a reproduction of an Edo-era play. Everyone spoke in clear but rapid-fire Japanese. According to my brochure, printed in Japan’s world-famous Engrish, said that this was the story of an oiran and a court official. As she drank sake with him, her attendants remarked that the way he drank reminded them of the oiran’s lover – who was another official. Instead of taking offense, her customer helped them get married. The locals seemed to like it. For everyone else, the main thrust of humor came from the man who played the customer — a hapless tourist who spoke not a word of Japanese, but gamely played along with the narrator’s assistance.

At the end of the performance, to mimic Edo-era etiquette, the audience was encouraged to wrap coins in rice paper and throw them at the stage as a sign of their appreciation. As the money flew, a new image flashed through my head.

A bright morning. An elaborate wooden stage, raised above the street. A cheering crowd. A line of actors and actresses in full costume, bowing deeply. Paper fluttering through the air, weighted by metal coins.

I shook my head and took another drink of water. This was no mere delusion. This was something like… a memory. A memory from a previous life.

The next performance was at the ninja house. This one, the brochure claimed, told the story of an older ninja and a junior kunoichi. Having obtained vital information, they were taking refuge in a safe house — but the enemy was pursuing them. The first half of the performance was a skit. The Japanese laughed uproariously; all I understood was a small segment where the kunoichi drank her senior’s sake with gusto right after the ninja expounded its benefits. The second half began when the enemy broke in. The shinobi attacked the intruders, taking full advantage of the house’s false walls, secret tunnels and booby traps. Here, physical humor transcended language, and the shinobi finally triumphed.

As the show came a close, another vision struck me. Nightfall. Lanterns lining the road, illuminating another raised platform. As an actress in an elaborate costume delivered her lines, burly men in black clothes hustled in the background. They were stagehands, their all-black clothing a sign that the audience should ignore them.

I needed to clear my head.

A shallow river ran through the park. A place where people could sit and rest by the water. There were no people, though. Just a pair of tame goats.

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I’d seen a similar river, in another time and place. Back then, I didn’t see goats. I saw…a cat. A woman. A ribbon.

As I framed that thought, the past crashed into my mind.

****

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If you would like more fiction from the author, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.