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.

SIGNAL BOOST: The Ronin Genesis by Steven Hildreth Jr.

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I’ve known Steven for 13 years and counting. Back then, we were newcomers on the writing scene with more ambition than skill. Nonetheless, we kept each other going over the years, even though I veered off into science fiction and fantasy while he stayed a purebred thriller writer. With THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say that he has reached new heights.

Previously in THE SOVEREIGNS, former Special Operations soldier Benjamin Williams intervenes in a terrorist attack at the Saguaro Towers in Tucson, Arizona. But the strike was a false flag attack engineered by Iran to breach the American covert intelligence infrastructure — and the true mastermind has fled the scene with a thumb drive filled with sensitive information.

With no other options, the Central Intelligence Agency turns to a small Private Military Company to find the Iranian and recover the thumb drive. The PMC in turn hires Williams and members of his former Special Activities Division team. Pursuing their target through Mexico, Williams and his teammates must battle mercenaries, a ruthless drug cartel and a shadowy wet work team. And in this multi-factional drug war, the Ronin Defense Institute will be born in blood and steel.

Steve made his mark writing hard-hitting action-packed thrillers intertwined with surprising depth of character. As a beta reader of THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say he took his skills to the next level. Action scenes explode from the page from the first trigger pull, and once the shooting stops there’s no letting up until the last body falls. The operators are portrayed authentically, displaying the mindset, training, techniques, tactics and procedures that separate the best from the rest. When Williams and his allies clash with the opposition, both sides do their best to outwit and outfight each other, creating satisfying scenes of suspense, drama and all-out action.

It’s not all blood and guts and gore. During breathers, Steve explores his characters’ histories and personalities, letting his characters evolve with the plot. We see more of Williams’ backstory, gain insights into why the bad guys do what they do, and even peek into the hearts of many minor characters who, in other stories, would be shown once or twice and soon forgotten.

Steve’s writing is clean, precise and hard-hitting. Brisk and workmanlike, it is highly reminiscent of the best of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, with events proceeding at breakneck pace. While there are plenty of acronyms and military jargon in there, the book also comes with a glossary for readers new to the genre.

THE RONIN GENESIS also takes the series into a darker direction. Steve has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and torture, but this novel kicks it up a notch. Even so, it’s never employed gratuitously for mere shock effect; instead, it underscores the brutality of Mexico’s drug war, creates chilling portrayals of human evil, and demonstrates the terrible cost of sustained violence on the human spirit.

I only have one main issue with the novel. Now and then the characters make references to past adventures that Steve hasn’t written yet. Having sat with Steve and discussed his ideas for the series, I can say that the novel will spoil some of his future novels set prior to the events of the currently-published series. Among the many stories I’ve read this is a novel issue — but it will not in any way affect your enjoyment of the novel.

You can pick up THE RONIN GENESIS on Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.

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.