By IRC Round Robin
Submitted October 1998
Summary: When the souls of Lois and Clark find each other in 17th century Japan, will their newfound love be doomed upon facing the combined forces of this era's incarnations of Tempus and Lex Luthor? Find out in this new spellbinding installment of the SoulMates Chronicles.
An IRC Round Robin By Lansbury <Lansbury1@aol.com>; Mackteach <Mackteach@aol.com>; Misha <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Missytoo <MissyToo@mindspring.com>; Nekanuq <Nekanuq@aol.com>; ChiefPam <email@example.com>; Zoomway <Zoomway@aol.com>; ChrisM <firstname.lastname@example.org>; chrispat <email@example.com>; Eraygun <Eraygun@aol.com>
H. G. Wells removed himself from his time machine and walked slowly through his house. He was deep in thought as he entered his study and stopped before a tall locked cabinet.
"Now, where did I place that key?" Wells said aloud as he began to search each pocket of his coat and vest. Suddenly remembering, with a smile he walked over and opened a small brown inlaid box and removed the key from its hiding place.
He fingered the key as he approached the cabinet once again. Very quickly he opened the lock and pulled the double doors open. He once again smiled as he touched a few of the objects that lay on one of the shelves.
His fingers lingered over a paintbrush once used by da Vinci, a plume from the hat of a seafaring adventurer, a copy of a newspaper from a small Western town. His smile widened across his face as he recalled where he had gotten each. From his inside pocket, he withdrew a delicate Japanese fan and added it to the collection.
"Now, let's get down to the business at hand." Wells moved to close the cabinet but stopped as his eyes focused again on the fan. No, not quite yet, he thought as he lifted it from its new resting place and walked to his desk, leaving the cabinet's doors ajar.
Wells laid the fan to one side and once again searched for the key to his middle desk drawer. To himself he murmured, "Pesky keys … I must see if I can't invent one key which will unlock everything."
He found the key he was searching for, unlocked the middle drawer and removed a book from it. Glancing at the fan frequently as though for inspiration, he opened the journal to a blank page and began writing …
"I, H. G. Wells, with the aid of my Time Machine and the Soul Tracker have once again located the two soul mates I first detected in the incarnations of Lois Lane and Clark Kent. This time the adventure took me to Nagasaki, Japan in the year 1603 …
"… The air was full of the scent of sweet cherry blossoms as I quickly found a hiding place for my Time Machine. Using the Soul Tracker to pinpoint the location of the two I searched for, I held it in front of me to scan the area around me. A small yellow light began to pulsate as it locked onto one of its targets and gave me the location of the soul nearest to me. Continuing the scan, I found the other within seconds. They are never far apart. Where there is one, the other is always close by …"
Intent on the technical marvel in his hand, Wells suddenly found himself among the hustle and bustle of a small marketplace. Jostled by some people, he mumbled his apologies. He looked about him and forgot the Soul Tracker.
The sounds and colors that assailed him were quite unlike anything he had encountered before. He did recognize some familiar elements: vendors bargaining with potential buyers, children playing in and among the adults, women whispering among themselves, and elderly men sitting and observing everything. The language was also unfamiliar, and he frowned down at the device. After a slight re-calibration of the translator, he cocked his head and listened for a moment. The jumble of alien sounds gradually shifted and cleared into words — still a confused clatter, but now one that he could understand. Local dialect, he thought with a smile of satisfaction and placed the Soul Tracker in his inner coat pocket.
Strolling past the various vendors, at first he wasn't aware of the stares and silence that followed in his wake. When he came to the end of the street, however, the sudden silence was deafening. He turned and saw that he had attracted quite a crowd around him. A crowd that while curious about him, also had a deep suspicion of all foreigners. He knew that the Japanese people prided themselves on the purity of their race and their country and had only recently begun to open their minds and their port of Nagasaki to foreign traders.
Wells sensed an undercurrent of tension among the crowd, one that became stronger as several youthful men stepped forward.
"Why are you here, gaijin? Outsiders have no business here."
Wells frowned and touched his hand to his hat. "Dreadfully sorry, but have I offended in some way?"
One youth scowled at him and took a step forward.
"Here, here! What's all this?"
At the sound of another voice, the crowd turned and opened a way for a man in clerical garb to pass through. Stepping to the front of the crowd, he looked at the youths and at Wells. Immediately assessing the situation, he spoke to the youths in their language.
"Rintaro? Why are you bothering this man?"
The youth that he spoke to lowered his eyes and bowed respectfully. "Forgive me, Father Bernardo. He is a stranger here and I thought he may cause trouble."
Father Bernardo raised his eyebrow at that comment. "Rintaro, have I not taught you about the Golden Rule?"
"Then be on your way. I will deal with the stranger." As the crowd dispersed, Father Bernardo was reminded of something. "Rintaro!"
The youth turned back. "Yes, Father Bernardo?"
"Stop by the orphanage later. The children wish some help with their kites."
Rintaro smiled and bowed deeply. "Yes, Father Bernardo." He turned and hurried to catch up to his friends.
Father Bernardo turned to Wells. "Forgive them. They are young and impetuous."
"Yes. Quite. Thank you very much for your assistance."
"You're welcome. I am Father Bernardo. I run the Jesuit orphanage here in Nagasaki."
Wells shook the hand that Father Bernardo extended to him. "I am H. G. Wells, a writer and world-traveler."
Father Bernardo's eyes lit up with interest. "A writer you say? What brings you to our city?"
Wells launched into his prepared speech about studying the culture, gathering notes for a popular history, acquainting the people of his country with the splendor of Japan. Father Bernardo seemed willing to aid Wells in his "research" but warned him that it might not be easy.
"These people are good-hearted and hard-working, but not always quick to befriend a stranger. But, forgive me for keeping you standing here in the street. Please, come join me," he offered. "I have someone I would like you to meet."
Wells fell into step with the Jesuit priest, marveling at how the soul of Bernard Klein in its many incarnations was also found intertwined with those of Lois and Clark.
As they walked, Wells stared at the people, fascinated, and let the sights and smells and sounds of the ancient Japanese city wash over him. Too soon, they arrived at a large, two-story building, slightly removed from the surrounding houses.
The large outside gates were open, and as they approached, Wells could see a dozen or so small children running around inside the courtyard. One small boy in pursuit of a rolling ball was about to collide with Father Bernardo, when a voice called out.
The boy stopped short, almost falling over his feet, and looked back. Wells didn't miss the shamefaced look on the boy's face, and neither did the man who had called.
"Kenji-san! Konnichi wa…" Wells missed the rest of Father Bernardo's greeting.
A reassuring smile from Kenji sent Hiro running back into the courtyard, and Father Bernardo turned to Wells.
The younger man approached, his robes gently swaying as he limped across the open space of the courtyard. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with the dark eyes and shining black hair of the people of this land, and in his teacher's robes, he gave the impression of a scholarly, gentle man. Wells tried not to stare, but was amazed how much this striking man resembled Clark Kent.
Kenji stopped before them. Father Bernardo smiled. "We have a visitor. This gentleman is a writer like yourself, Kenji-san. He is called H. G. Wells."
He bowed to Wells. "Welcome. I am Tanaka Kenji."
Wells held out his hand to shake Kenji's, but then, thinking to follow the customs of this place, bowed clumsily instead.
Kenji smiled. "This is an honor" — he hesitated — "Eichiji-san. I am most interested in hearing about your writing, sir."
Wells smiled at the carefully masked confusion on the young man's face as he did his best with the unfamiliar name. "Please, call me Wells," he urged, thinking to alleviate the awkwardness.
Kenji bowed. "Certainly. We … Werusu-san."
"Wells," Wells enunciated.
"Werusu," Kenji repeated.
"Oh my, that is quite a mouthful, isn't it?" Wells murmured sympathetically.
Father Bernardo spoke up. "Perhaps Weru-san would do."
"Oh, yes, quite, quite. So nice to meet you." Wells bowed again.
Father Bernardo invited the men to come in from the heat of the day and have some tea with him. Wells found himself happily following along when a small boy came running up, shouting Kenji's name.
Kenji turned and waited for the youth. The boy pulled him down and whispered urgently into his ear.
Kenji nodded, patted the boy on the shoulder, then spoke to Father Bernardo. "If you will excuse me, there is a matter I need to attend to." He hobbled quickly away from Wells and Father Bernardo.
Watching him go, Wells shook his head in amazement at the familiarity of the gesture. The only thing missing was the tugging at his tie and the athletic gait of Clark Kent.
Wells turned to Father Bernardo as Kenji disappeared. "I say, he seems to be in quite a hurry."
The priest gave Wells an odd look, a sort of mask dropping over his expression. Wells would soon realize it was a characteristic Bernardo had picked up from the Japanese. They were a rather shy, private people, who did not let strangers in easily. Wells had his work cut out for him.
"Kenji had some important tasks to attend to, sir. He had been on his way just when we arrived."
Wells nodded, understanding the cover-up that was going on, and the need not to push the issue further. It seemed Clark Kent had a secret identity in every port, and ancient Japan was no different. He would have to see if he could get the father and Kenji to take him into their confidence.
Father Bernardo escorted Wells around the orphanage, explaining how difficult it had been for him to establish such a place among the Japanese, who had regarded him with a mixture of menacing suspicion and great curiosity when he had first arrived some fifteen years ago.
"The color of my hair caused them great amusement when they first saw me, not to mention my height and blue eyes. You probably will feel the same thing from them."
"Yes, I do believe I know what you mean. However, I'm quite used to being a surprise to people, as if I had appeared out of thin air." Wells let out a tiny giggle at his own secret.
"Well, I must say, you are quite a surprise to us all, Mr. Wells. I will admit, I was never one to know fashion, but your mode of dress is unusual, even to me." The priest looked him up and down.
Wells shuffled his feet and looked away from the Jesuit's penetrating gaze. "Oh, yes? Well, I suppose it is unusual, I never really considered it. Clothes really aren't very important to me, you know." He was saved further dithering by a sudden commotion in the street. "I wonder what that is?"
He moved over to stand in the gate of the orphanage, interested to observe the city once more. Father Bernardo followed. Whatever he may have thought about the question of Wells' garb, he held his peace.
Nearby, Lady Junmi was finishing up her day's shopping. She was the only daughter of Lord Hosokawa, one of the minor nobility, and after her mother's death, she had taken charge of the home. In this, she was assisted by Mariko, the motherly housekeeper.
"I believe we've gotten everything, have we not, Mariko-san?" she asked, mentally rechecking her purchases. They had made good bargains today, and had done so in good time. If she were lucky, she'd be able to spend some time working on her poetry when she returned to the estate.
"Yes, my lady," Mariko replied, smiling. "If we head back now, you can write while I prepare dinner."
Junmi smiled. Mariko knew her so well; the housekeeper was the next best thing she had to a mother. Just then, the commotion from the street reached them and they turned, frowning, to see what could be the matter.
Two men on horseback were the source of the noise; they were riding wildly, paying no heed to either people or property in their way. One of them seemed to be pursuing the other.
"Eiji!" he shouted, scowling. "You will pay for that!"
The other man laughed loudly. "You will have to catch me first, Eichi, my brother." He urged his horse to go even faster, heedless of the objects in his path. The two horses disappeared down a side street, but the sounds of their progress suggested that they hadn't gone far.
Lady Junmi frowned, then whispered to Mariko, "Do I interpret their names correctly?"
Mariko nodded. "Eichi — Ei the eldest son, and Eiji — Ei the second son. Their parents obviously had no imagination. I would judge them to be twins."
Junmi hummed agreement. "But with little else in common."
The laughing brother's horse thundered back onto the main avenue from a side street, with the other still in pursuit. The situation abruptly went from bad to worse as it became clear that one old lady, either hard of hearing or extremely stubborn, was not altering her course across the street. The lead horse was heading straight for her.
Junmi gasped in fear and Mariko clutched her arm, turning away from the accident in progress. Thus, she missed seeing a black-garbed figure materialize, seemingly out of nowhere, and sweep the old woman out of harm's way.
"The Tai!" Junmi breathed in awe. She'd never seen him in action before, but this must be he. She studied him as he set the woman upright on the side of the street, and yes, she could distinguish the figure of an eagle on his black-clad chest.
Mariko's head popped up. "The Tai?"
"Yes, yes, look," Junmi urged, but by this time the mysterious figure had vanished once more. The rowdy horsemen had disappeared as well, leaving the street in quiet disarray.
They were around the corner and halfway down the street before Eiji could rein in his horse. Someone had managed to pull that old woman out of the way of his horse's hooves, and he had recognized the symbol on the man's chest. Just the sort of man to help old ladies across the street …
Eichi thundered by, aiming a fist at his brother's head. Eiji ducked and swatted Eichi's mount as he rode by. The horse, already spooked by the commotion in the marketplace, bucked Eichi through the woven straw wall of a nearby house.
As Eichi painfully picked himself off the tatami inside, Eiji leaned back in the saddle, laughing gleefully. He was rewarded by a baleful glare from both his twin and the two horses, and just laughed all the harder.
Eichi kicked his feet free of the clinging straw, and started to clamber through the torn wall when Eiji realized that his laughter was the only sound in the street. Pedestrians had fled at their passing, and even the horses were suddenly still.
Until Eiji's face nearly kissed the ground. His breath was knocked from him as a pair of feet hit his back and sent him tumbling head over foot to the dusty street. He managed to tuck and roll away from the dancing hooves of the horse, and sprang to his feet.
His hand was on his katana, and his eyes slid up a polished steel blade to the chest of his attacker. The mon of an eagle was a bold splash of gold against the black robes of the man. He suppressed a shiver; he had heard of this one who wore the symbol of the tai. Eiji's eyes slid further up, meeting the still, brown gaze of a master swordsman.
Though their eyes never parted, Eiji felt his opponent's awareness of Eichi's movements, and watched the Tai warily as he stepped sideways, keeping his sword between the brothers. Eichi stepped through the wall and froze.
Eiji felt his hand quiver above his sword. There were only the two of them, and no man would mourn a master-less samurai. The Tai's gaze flickered toward Eichi as he drew his katana, and Eiji found his moment.
Taking advantage of the Tai's brief inattention, he leapt for the reins of the closest horse, and hauled himself onto its back. He dragged the horse's head around and kicked it into motion.
Eichi strangled a cry of rage. The coward! He'd left him to face this preening fool and the governor's guard that would undoubtedly show up soon enough. He brandished his katana and focused, finally looking into the eyes of his opponent. He wanted to see what kind of a man this Tai was before he killed him.
He was puzzled at what he found. So used to finding fear, the longest moment passed before he realized that the eyes behind the mask were compassionate, almost sad. This man took no pleasure in killing, Eichi realized, and he sneered.
He aimed a blinding slash at the Tai, intent on shearing off his head, but was astonished to see how quickly and easily the man evaded his stroke. Overbalanced, his katana whistled over the Tai's head, and Eichi grimaced as a lightning flash of steel-induced pain blazed its way up his sword-arm.
He gritted his teeth and barely managed to deflect another quicksilver sword-stroke. Sweat beaded on his forehead as Eichi came to the same realization his brother had reached minutes before. Lightning was slower than this samurai's reflexes, and the gnawing pit of fear in his stomach suddenly threatened to overwhelm Eichi as he parried yet another blow, this one just inches from his side.
A clatter at the end of the street distracted him. Eichi cursed as he saw the first of the patrol round the corner, and he looked back to see the Tai step back, bow and fade into the shadows.
Eichi fought off the sudden weakness of relief in his knees, and sprinted for his horse. He cursed the animal as it danced out of reach, and threw himself desperately into the saddle. His arm twinged with pain, but he forced it down and bared his teeth in a snarl as he galloped out of Nagasaki.
"Wait until I tell Jimi," Junmi giggled, as she and Mariko resumed their walk. "Oh, Mariko, was he not the finest figure of a man … ? I wonder what his face looked like?" she continued.
Mariko laughed. "You can't fool me, my lady. You weren't looking at his face."
Junmi feigned a shocked expression at the impropriety of Mariko's comment, though she was so right. How handsome the Tai seemed. How bold. Yet *seemed* was probably the best word. How could she be attracted to a disguise? The truth was she knew nothing of the man who hid within. Still, when she'd caught that fleeting glimpse, she felt she was remembering someone she had never met. How strange.
Her mind was suddenly brought back from thoughts of the mysterious hero when Father Bernardo approached.
"Lady Junmi," he said, bowing deeply. "I have a letter of recommendation for a sensei."
"So soon?" she asked, taking the paper.
"Yes," Bernardo smiled. "He's a good scholar, and younger than most teachers. I think your brother will like him."
"Have him come to our home, Father Bernardo," Junmi said, still looking at the recommendation.
"Oh, I nearly forgot," Bernardo added as Wells joined the small gathering. "This is H. G. Wells — ah, Weru. He's a writer, Lady Junmi. I thought you might like to meet him."
Junmi's polite smile grew larger. "A writer? I'm honored. I … well, I've tried my own hand at writing, and though it's not very good — "
"It's *very* good," Mariko interrupted.
"I agree!" Bernardo smiled before Junmi could politely protest.
"Then I'd deem it an honor to read your works, Lady Junmi," Wells said, easily recognizing Lois. There was always a spiritedness in her eyes that no restrictive station or class could disguise.
Junmi demurred reflexively. "If you think you might like to read some of my poems, I would be happy for your professional critique."
Mariko smiled inwardly listening. Lady Junmi was playing her role as nobility must, but she could imagine the young woman grabbing the odd gaijin stranger and bodily dragging him home to read her work.
"It's an appointment then, Lady Junmi." Wells bowed.
"Excellent," Bernardo nodded. "You can accompany Kenji-san, Jimi's sensei, whom I'm sure Jimi can't wait to meet."
Junmi smiled crookedly. "No doubt," she said and tugged at Mariko's sleeve."We'd better be heading back."
"Yes, my lady," the older woman said, and then after they were safely out of earshot, Mariko stopped. "My lady Junmi, this is not my place to say, but a gaijin visiting your father's home — "
"Mariko-san, I am not my father," she sighed.
"But *gaijin*, Lady Junmi. They are strangers, and there has been trouble."
Junmi looked at Mariko thoughtfully. "Who has caused the trouble, Mariko-san? The gaijin, or *our* people?"
"That is not my argument, Lady Junmi," Mariko said, a motherly tone to her voice. "Welcoming foreigners into your home during these troubled times is dangerous. What could possibly be of such value among the gaijin that fascinates you to the point of endangering yourself?"
"Mariko-san," she said tenderly. "When I see one of the gaijin, I see another part of the world. I will live out my life never wandering far from my home, and so I will never see the places they have left behind. Since I cannot go to their worlds, then I will bring their worlds to me … one gaijin at a time if I have to."
Mariko sighed and began walking again. "Right through your father's front door."
Junmi smiled as she followed. "Maybe the back door."
Father Bernardo offered supper and a bed to his gaijin visitor, and Wells gratefully accepted both. He could see that Kenji and Bernardo had a special relationship in this incarnation, and therefore felt he would have the best chance of seeing the most of Kenji and Junmi's budding relationship if he attached himself to Kenji's friend.
He was placed as far as possible from the children's sleeping quarters because, as Father Bernardo explained, it was hoped that the children's morning routines would not disturb the visitor. If Wells hadn't quite accepted that explanation at face value, he hadn't let on to the priest. Having already witnessed how protective Father Bernardo was of Kenji, he didn't want to let on that he suspected that young man of leading a double life. Therefore, Wells went to bed in the little out of the way room that was given to him, and thanked his host with proper British gratitude.
Trying to make himself comfortable on a mat on the floor, he felt pleased with his progress so far, even while wishing that Father Bernardo might have kept a few European customs — at least the ones which pertained to sleeping accommodations. The adventures of the day had fatigued him more than he'd realized, however, and he dropped into a deep sleep almost immediately. A sleep so deep, in fact, that when he was first jolted awake he hadn't known where he was, but the moonlight was illuminating his modest sleeping room, and soon he had his bearings again. With relief he stretched out once more, turning his face away from the window, and that intrusive moon.
A bird's cry — plaintive and yet urgent — made him start up again. He'd never heard anything quite like it. Without understanding why, he found himself standing at the window, his eyes searching the grounds of the orphanage for any sight of that bird. It wasn't a wounded bird that he eventually saw, however, but a kite, silhouetted against the moon. And, at the same moment, he heard once more the bird's call … then he understood.
His face split into a wide, appreciative grin at the ingenuity of it. A bird's cry to alert anyone in the know to watch the sky, and then a kite to send a message. No doubt there were symbols of some sort on the kites, or perhaps differently shaped kites were meant to represent different kinds of trouble. In any event, a kite in Japan would not be anything remarkable, and it could be used to communicate over a considerable distance. He thought back to that morning …"Help the children with their kites" indeed! He couldn't help but chuckle at how Father Bernardo and the Tai were boldly operating in plain sight — just where no one would think to look for them.
Putting his jacket on over the night dress the priest had lent him, and stepping quickly into his shoes, Wells slipped out of his room and headed as quietly as possible in the direction of the "bird's" last cry.
The Tai moved stealthily, yet purposefully, through the back streets of Nagasaki — intent upon reaching his destination in the shortest time possible. He knew every roof top, every alley, every street or garden, and he'd used that knowledge many times before to arrive just in the nick of time … and seemingly from out of nowhere. It helped to add to the Tai's mystique; people had said he'd seemed to drop from the sky, which Kenji found secretly amusing. However, if it made criminals terrified of him, then that was just one more weapon in his arsenal.
Several blocks behind him, he could hear that a patrol was also coming this way, but he knew they'd not be able to arrive in time. It would be up to him to stop this robbery.
There were three of them — all well-armed, but also all heavily laden with their plunder. From atop the garden wall of a neighboring house, the Tai chuckled softly at how simple it would be to nab these three. He had readied himself to leap when a fourth bandit appeared in the doorway, carrying a bound and gagged young woman. The Tai's chuckle instantly turned to an angry growl as he watched the girl struggling to free herself while an old man tried to restrain the ruffian who was abducting his daughter.
The big brute casually shifted the girl's body to one arm, and at same time raised his other hand to strike down the older, slighter man, but the blow never made contact. Instead he found himself nose to sword with an opponent who was at once much more worthy and infinitely more dangerous. He heard one of his companions scream, "The Tai!" and was aware that all three had discarded everything and ran, but his attention was all for the man before him. Holding onto the girl only long enough to shield himself until he could draw his own sword, he then callously dropped her and began slashing wildly at the Tai. Like so many before him, he underestimated the hero's quickness, skill and courage — and paid the price.
By the time the old man had struggled to his feet and reached his daughter's side, her would-be ravisher was lying sprawled upon the street, unconscious and wounded, but alive. The Tai's actions had appeared so fierce that the old man and his daughter couldn't help but cower reflexively when the hooded samurai turned his attention their way, but they soon learned that the Tai had a gentle side, too.
He untied the young woman, then used the rope to truss up her assailant, before taking a moment to assure himself that neither victim had suffered any serious hurt. She had a cut on her right wrist, which he gently bandaged, using a bit of cloth pulled from underneath his sash. They tried to thank him — the old man even offering a reward — but he would take nothing, only bowing deeply to them before melting into the night. When the patrol arrived moments later they found a street strewn with belongings, two shaken but safe citizens, sleepy-eyed neighbors peeking cautiously from their doorways and an unconscious thief whose criminal career would soon be coming to a dramatic, and permanent, end in the Shogun's court.
Wells had located a dark, out of the way corner in which to stand and watch for what might happen, prepared to wait for a while, if necessary. Clutching his jacket to himself, unhappy at how easily each little breeze seemed to find its way up his night dress, he was glad that he didn't, in fact, have long to wait.
It was the sudden stillness of the night creatures which informed him that someone was coming. "Softer than a leaf's fall, are the footsteps of the Tai," one of the orphanage's servants had told him, and it seemed that this rumor at least was true, for suddenly there he was, at the edge of the courtyard. How he had gotten in past the high walls and barred gates was a mystery to Wells.
He watched as Father Bernardo came out of a doorway and circumspectly crossed the courtyard to meet his friend in the shadows near the wall. As they came closer to his hiding place, Wells was chastising himself for having left the Soul Tracker, and its translating capabilites, in his room — now he wouldn't be able to understand what they were saying. Kenji was removing the hood and the mon of the Tai as he walked, and the instant these articles were in his hands, he also discarded the Tai's unfettered gait and heroic air, becoming once again the gentle, limping scholar. Wells thrilled at the sight, remembering other times, other disguises.
So taken up with watching was he, that he almost missed the fact that the priest and Kenji's low-voiced conversation was in English. At first surprised, he had to admit that, since most Japanese of this century could not speak any language other than their own, the two friends might just as well have been talking in code.
"So, it went well, Kenji-san? You are sure you were not hurt?"
"I am fine, Father, and so are the Sasakis. I got there in time to stop both the robbery and a kidnapping."
Father Bernardo crossed himself and murmured a small prayer of thanksgiving. "Then go to your bed, my friend, and rest, for you face an even greater challenge on the morrow. Young Lord Jimi will prove harder to subdue than a pack of bandits, I'm sure."
Chuckling deeply, Kenji agreed, then wished the older man goodnight, and departed.
Father Bernardo watched Kenji for a moment as he walked towards his solitary, one-roomed house at the edge of the orphanage grounds, then he murmured another prayer, this time in Latin, before heading for his own bed.
Wells waited long enough for the night to settle again before making his way cautiously back to his room. Chilled, he lay awake for a long time pondering what he'd seen and heard, hoping he'd be able to learn more, and thus slept fitfully the rest of the night.
The next morning, after spending such an eventful night, it was a rather tired Wells who set off in the company of Kenji for the house of Lord Hosokawa. His companion on this morning walk, however, seemed refreshed and rested … and eager to assume his new duties. Ah, the resilience of youth, he thought regretfully.
Hoping to induce Kenji to talk about himself, Wells began to question the young tutor with regard to his new position, but found that a chance remark about his own meeting with the Lady Junmi the day before led to Kenji turning the tables on him.
"I did not know that you were acquainted with Lady Junmi, Weru-san."
"Oh, yes, quite. She has agreed to let me hear some of her poetry. I understand from Father Bernardo that she's a very talented writer." Wells glanced up at his companion's face, and what he saw there caused him to continue. "A very beautiful young woman, the Lady Junmi."
Kenji was silent for a moment, lost in contemplation. "Yes, she is," he said finally, in a tender tone of voice.
Wells managed to hide a sudden grin behind his hand as he pretended to clear his throat, a noise which served to jerk Kenji from his abstraction.
"Yes, she is," he reasserted, and then added, "a very talented writer … I mean. I mean that I have heard that she is a very talented writer."
Wells bowed, and watched as a blushing Kenji stepped forward to exchange words with Lord Hosokawa's gatekeeper. "Of course you have, my boy," he muttered in an understanding tone. "Of course you have."
It did not take long to be admitted into the presence of the lord of the house. To Wells' disappointment and, he suspected, Kenji's even greater disappointment, neither Lady Junmi or the young Lord Jimi were with their father. Lord Hosokawa, it seemed, wanted to inspect his visitors first. Kenji accepted this state of affairs with outward calm, so Wells relaxed, deciding that this must just be good parenting in 17th century Japan.
Instead, he studied this new character in the current drama and found himself drawn to the man. Strong and powerfully built, Lord Hosokawa was obviously a person used to command, and more than capable of protecting what was his. It wasn't his well-known strength that had piqued Wells' interest, however, it was something Father Bernardo had told him during their dinner together the night before.
Lord Hosokawa was also a man of considerable learning, and had often invited the priest to his house for an exchange of ideas over tea or saki. The Jesuit admired this man, and that in itself would have made Wells anxious to meet him. The fact that he was also Junmi's father made him even more interesting. A man of strong convictions, yet one who could keep an open mind — a rare specimen in any century, and it was that quality which helped Wells to finally realize that Lord Hosokawa held Perry White's dynamic spirit. Somehow he would have thought that Jonathan Kent's soul would once again be a parent for Lois. Interesting twists these journeys had shown him.
Even with the Soul Tracker, Wells sometimes had difficulty following all that the two men were saying, but he gathered that Hosokawa was generally pleased with Kenji, even if still a bit skeptical about someone so young being qualified to properly teach his son.
After an exchange of about twenty minutes, Lord Hosokawa turned to one of the nearby servants and gave a command. Wells and Kenji didn't have long to wait until both of the children of the house were brought before their father and formally presented to the guests. Young Lord Jimi, as Father Bernardo had predicted, was less than enthusiastic about meeting his new tutor, but being a well-brought up young man, he hid it well.
After the introductions, Lady Junmi invited them all into a side room for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Wells was amused to notice the sidelong glances that Kenji and Junmi exchanged as they all settled on cushions around the low table.
Lady Junmi served gracefully and, as was the custom, kept silent as the men exchanged small talk.
Lord Hosokawa had been intrigued by the strange little man who had accompanied Kenji and proceeded to question him closely. He apparently knew quite a bit about the Europeans of this time, and Wells found himself having to think fast to avoid slipping up. He could definitely see Perry's reporter instincts in this incarnation.
Junmi took advantage of her father's inattention and studied her brother's new tutor from behind her fan. He was taller than most of the men she had seen, and she admired his large, almond shaped eyes and long eyelashes, but it wasn't his appearance alone that attracted her. There was something familiar about him. Somehow she knew that he was a brave and honorable man, as well as kind and gentle. It was almost as if she had known him somewhere or somewhen else. She listened carefully as Lord Hosokawa turned his attention to Kenji.
"So, Kenji-san, how is it that you became a tutor?"
"I have always had a love of knowledge and the art of writing," he replied, casting a sidelong glance at Junmi. "Particularly poetry."
Lord Hosogawa nodded, but made no comment.
To Kenji's relief, Lord Hosokawa again turned his attention to Wells, and Kenji allowed his thoughts to turn to Junmi. Why did he feel so drawn to her? She was beautiful, but he had seen many beautiful women. He had seen her for the first time when she had been on one of her shopping expeditions in the city and had asked Father Bernardo about her. When he heard that her father was looking for a tutor for her younger brother, he had jumped at the chance to possibly get to know her better, even if he knew it was foolish for a man in his position. He knew he had nothing to offer her, but he hadn't been able to resist.
He suddenly realized that his thoughts were going in circles and forced himself to pay attention to the conversation. He took one last look at Junmi and was startled when he caught her looking at him with a thoughtful expression. For a moment their eyes met and both blushed and lowered their lashes. Wells had been watching and had to hold back a chuckle.
After a few moments of silence in the room, young Lord Jimi turned to Wells. "My sister told me that the Tai was in the city yesterday. Did you see him?" he asked enthusiastically.
Wells smiled. "I did catch a glimpse of him from a distance," he replied smoothly, casting a quick glance in Kenji's direction. "Quite a dashing rescue. But I would be interested in learning more about him. Who is he and where does he come from?"
"You are asking questions we would all like the answer to," Lord Hosokawa interrupted.
Junmi flushed slightly under her father's watchful gaze and offered Wells and Kenji more tea.
"By your tone I would think you are somewhat disapproving of the Tai and his actions, my lord," Kenji said mildly.
"No, not really Tanaka-sensei. But it is disturbing that he is masked like a bandit. If he is a man of honor, what is he hiding?"
"Lord Hosokawa, perhaps the Tai is not hiding from anyone but yet wants no one to know his identity. But, sir, that is just my most humble opinion."
Lord Hosokawa looked at Kenji. "Perhaps you are right, young man. Only time will tell us who is hiding and who is not. Now tell me more of your background. I want only the best for my son, Jimi."
Kenji looked at his cup as if he were weighing each word carefully. "My lord, I have studied…"
At that moment a stifled moan came from Wells as he began to move at his place at the table. Wells was conscious of all eyes on him but try as he might another moan escaped him.
"I am terribly sorry. I must move or permanently be bent in this unnatural position. Bad back, you know."
Wells moved carefully so as not to jostle the low table before him, but despite his care he struck the table slightly, spilling tea as it shook. "Lord Hosokawa, I beg your pardon. I did not mean to cause a commotion at your table."
Jimi looked at his father and again down at his own cup. He was fighting a smile.
In the corner of the room a movement caught Well's eye. Junmi had slipped quietly away and now returned with fresh tea and a small cloth to clean the spills. Kenji watched as she very carefully cleaned the area and retreated back so the men could continue their conversations.
"Weru-san, no damage was done. It takes training to sit properly during the whole tea ceremony. Now, I need to warn you, Tanaka-sensei. In the surrounding mountains are evil ronin, master-less samurai who have turned to banditry. They are causing many problems for our community at large. You are to keep my son occupied so he has no desire to investigate their identity or whereabouts."
"Father, I am almost grown and do not need anyone to keep me occupied."
Without listening to his son's words, Lord Hosokawa stared into the eyes of Kenji. "You have been warned."
Within the ruins of crumbling stone and rotting wooden pillars, Eichi twitched irritably as the long blood-encrusted slash on his arm was cleaned and rebound. He watched his younger, unharmed twin with an ill-concealed sneer as Eiji told the half-dozen ronin gathered around him of their glorious dash through Nagasaki the day before.
The quiet voice of the man binding his arm distracted Eichi for a moment. "I notice that Eiji-san neglects to mention your encounter with the Tai."
Eichi glanced down at the bandage and flexed his arm.
"No, Nobuo, he does not. He completely forgets how he ran like a rabbit while I faced the Tai alone," Eichi snarled. "Had I the least bit of help- a distraction, maybe- I could have beaten him."
Nobuo nodded, rocking back on his heels. He doubted either of them could have beaten a master of the sword, as the Tai was reported to be, but in the interests of keeping his head attached to his shoulders, said nothing.
"He also forgets that the mad dash he started did nothing but raise suspicion about us. We must at least have the appearance of nobility before we can operate with any efficiency in this province."
Nobuo nodded again, but turned as his master was called.
"Eichi!" Eiji had finished his tale, and the ronin trailed behind him as he approached his brother.
Eichi banished all emotion from his face. He did not like his younger brother's casual address. "Yes?
"I remembered something I saw in the market yesterday that might be helpful."
"So that's where you left your courage."
Eiji reddened, but let the comment pass. "Lady Junmi was there."
A flicker of something passed across Eichi's face, but was gone before Eiji could identify it. "She was?"
Eiji nodded. "I was thinking that if Lord Hosokawa and his heir were to have … an accident, and if I married Lady Junmi …"
Eichi stood quickly, hand on his katana. Eiji stepped back, wary.
Eichi's voice was deadly serious. "No one marries Lady Junmi but me."
Eiji's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. "All right … if *you* married Lady Junmi, then the 'respectability' you want is waiting for two things."
"If I may, my lord …" Nobuo spoke up, his tone deferential.
Eiji shot an annoyed glance at his brother's sandal-licker.
"Yes, Nobuo-san?" Eichi said. Nobuo took his rise in status from Eichi with equanimity. "There is another foreigner in Nagasaki. If he were to be blamed for the cause of Lord Hosokawa's death, it would be that much easier for you to woo the Lady Junmi."
A smile crept across Eichi's face and his gaze unfocused. "Indeed." His eyes snapped to his brother's face. "Come, Nobuo, tell me more about your idea."
Nobuo bowed and followed his master to their chambers.
Eiji frowned. He really hadn't liked his brother's smile. He shivered and moved back into the sunlight of the courtyard.
The next few days were a period of both delight and torment for Kenji. The delights were many: tutoring such a lively young pupil as Jimi, having interesting discussions with Lord Hosokawa, getting to know other members of the household, and learning more about the world beyond Japan from Wells. The best delight, however, and also the worst torment, was seeing Junmi each day.
He loved her — completely, hopelessly. And, while in the daylight his spirit soared each time he saw her, thought of her, or heard her voice, at night — alone with his memories — that same spirit would plummet back to earth with fearful force.
He shouldn't love her. He couldn't love her … at least not the way he wanted to, yearned to. Not with the cloud of political disfavor that had fallen over his family, and which still hung over him. No … the best he could do was to watch over her and her family in secret.
So, each day he walked to the Hosokawa estate with the strange little gaijin, and each afternoon the two of them returned to the orphanage. Kenji tried to forget his troubles by listening to the tales of foreign lands that Father Bernardo and Weru-san would recount over the supper table, but the only time he could truly ease his bruised heart was when he was able to help someone as the Tai.
The ronin bandits were becoming bolder and their assaults on the innocent citizens of Nagasaki more frequent, so he was kept quite busy. It gave him a certain satisfaction to know that his efforts had been successful in putting a number of them into custody, but even that was fleeting. Junmi was visiting his dreams now, and therefore his bed, as well as his life, had never seemed lonelier.
Even following the deaths of his parents and older brother, he had not known this level of desolation, for from that grief had been born the idea for the Tai, and his pledge to some day restore his family's good name. He'd felt them with him ever since; his mother's gentle grace, his father's quiet strength and his brother's purity of heart had all been his to call upon whenever he'd needed them. His memories of his family had often sustained him until he'd found Father Bernardo.
The priest had become a steadfast friend, as well as a kind mentor, and Kenji had repaid that kindness by teaching at the orphanage school. His life had become quite orderly and finally, for the first time in years, he'd known contentment, and then … one day, he'd seen Junmi. Even from a distance, he'd been attracted to her, but now that he'd had daily contact with her, she'd so upset his peace of mind, and his world, that he'd found himself tempted to escape his scholar's persona when he was with her. Worse than that, he was afraid that she might have noticed a slip he'd made that very day.
Pacing in his room, unable to sleep, he'd replayed that moment in the garden over and over in his head. It wasn't bad enough that his mind had been so full of thoughts of her that he'd taken a couple of steps without limping, but he'd then compounded the error by limping on the wrong foot for a couple more steps.
He'd better be more careful tomorrow, or she would surely suspect something. She was no fool, this lady he'd set his foolish heart upon.
The cap to the day, though, had been hearing that Wells had been invited by Lord Hosokawa to spend the evening conversing with him, and then to stay the night at his house. Kenji had tried very hard not to be jealous of the gaijin's good fortune, because he knew that Wells had been wanting to hear Lady Junmi's poetry. It wasn't easy, however, and he'd had to resort to repeating Father Bernardo's "Golden Rule" to himself before he could honestly wish a cordial goodnight to Wells.
Now, in the small hours of the night, he was still too restless to sleep, and decided to put on the disguise of the Tai. Perhaps if he patrolled the town for a while, he'd be able to work off some this nervous energy.
At the edge of town, in the guest room that the housekeeper, Mariko, had given him, Wells was having unquiet dreams. During his stay in Nagasaki, through the good offices of Father Bernardo, he'd been able to meet and talk with several of the town's citizens. He'd quickly learned that whenever he had difficulty getting someone to speak with him, all he had to do was mention the Tai … or the ronin bandits, and the flood gates would open. Most were grateful to the Tai for what he was doing, and applauded his results even if they weren't wholly approving of his methods, but everyone despised and feared the masterless ronin who had their hideout in the hills nearby.
From these conversations, Wells was able to conclude that Kenji was facing not just Lex's soul or Tempus's soul, but both of them in the guise of twin brothers who had been hanging about the town in recent weeks. While he, personally, had not seen them, he'd talked to people who had, and learned that honest townspeople had tried to avoid them whenever possible.
Certain other elements of Nagasaki's population, however, had apparently gravitated to them with despairing alacrity, and several of those were now housed in the town's jail … thanks to the efforts of the Tai. Wells had no doubt that these incarnations of Superman's enemies would make every effort to harm or kill anyone who stood in the way of whatever they were planning, especially and including the Tai. He was also worried about Lady Junmi, knowing as he did of Lex and Tempus's predilection for kidnapping Lois.
He'd taken his fears to bed with him and now they were giving him nightmares.
In the eternal battle of good against evil, it was inevitable that the odds would go against "good" at least some of the time. Wells just didn't want this to be one of those times. He'd grown very fond of both Kenji and Junmi, and he could see how much they loved one another. It wouldn't be fair if fate, and the evil twins, would succeed in keeping them apart, and so he tossed and turned in his sleep until, finally, he was able to break free of the dream.
It was a while before he could fall asleep again, but when he did, it was with a new resolve: to help his young friends in whatever way he could.
"Ah, Jimi-san, do you always take the shortcut? Perhaps if you would follow the longer route once in a while, you would find something you haven't seen before."
Kenji scolded Jimi during his lesson, but in an easy, almost affectionate way, Wells thought. He was perched in the corner of the room, having promised only to view their customs, and not intrude. Jimi had been fidgety the entire morning, swiping hasty brush strokes on the rice paper in his hurry to master the Kanji characters Kenji was teaching him.
"But, Sensei, why do I have to place each brush stroke so precisely? I can get the same result if I do it this way …" Jimi quickly painted the symbol for "water" on the parchment, "as if I do it this way…" and again, he wrote the character, this time as Kenji had been drilling him to do.
"Ah, but it is the simple characters that are the foundation for the rest. If you do not write them in the proper order, who is to say you will not miss a stroke, and create a whole new Kanji?" But again, Jimi's attention was elsewhere, drawing another character on the edge of the paper, and Wells saw Kenji stiffen slightly when he noticed it. "Where did you learn that character, Jimi-san?"
Wells was intrigued by Kenji's tone, and craned to see what was on the rice paper, although all these symbols seemed pretty, but indecipherable, to him.
"I looked in Father's library and found it, Sensei. It was on a woodcut of an eagle … I wanted to know the symbol for the Tai."
"And which do you mean, 'eagle' or 'frightened,' Jimi-san? You see? You are so quick with your brush, that you neglect the end of this stroke …" Kenji took another brush and drew where Jimi had missed, "and this stroke should not cross over the others, it should join their ends. "But perhaps you mean to make a pun about the Tai by saying he is scared, and hides behind a scrap of his mother's kimono?"
"Oh, no, Sensei! I did not mean that at all. He is a hero! I would be like the Tai one day, protecting the city from ronin, if Father didn't keep me tucked away like a piece of porcelain." Jimi slumped against the table, his chin in one hand, while he made lazy swishes with his brush. "Besides, Junmi is the one who likes to write. I want to be a samurai!" Suddenly, he jumped up, waving his brush like a sword, and knocked over the ink pot.
"Jimi-san! Now see what you've done." Kenji reacted surprisingly quickly with a cloth to soak up the spill.
Wells decided this was a good time to make an exit, and as he reached the sliding door, he turned, caught Kenji's eye, and bobbed up and down in an awkward bow, smiling. Kenji's return smile was tinged with embarrassment.
He backed out of the room, right into Junmi. He straightened and turned. "Oh, oh, terribly sorry, my dear. I had no idea you were there." They bowed at each other like hens for a moment. "I simply must get the hang of this custom," he said deprecatingly.
Junmi had backed away a few feet, startled at being caught where she was. "It was entirely my fault, Weru-san. Please forgive me." She held a certain reserve, hidden behind a fan, but her eyes told a story not nearly as reserved as she glanced from Wells to the room where Kenji and Jimi were, and back.
Wells followed her look, and nodded knowingly, walking towards her. "Oh yes, I see. Ah, perhaps, Lady Junmi, we could go somewhere and discuss poetry?"
"I would like that, thank you."
As they walked across the courtyard, Kenji watched from the doorway.
"You see, Sensei? I'm not cut out for this scholarly life. I should be training in the ways of a warrior." Jimi was still busy cleaning up his mess inside.
Kenji spoke over his shoulder. "Even a warrior needs to know how to write, Jimi-san … and to be able to appreciate beauty." He sighed, as Wells and Junmi disappeared into the gardens.
Kenji's and Jimi's voices faded as Wells and Junmi walked away. Wells walked slowly, his hands behind his back, his thoughts to himself. Junmi cast a sideways look at the foreigner, wondering how to begin the conversation.
"Hmm? Yes, Lady Junmi-san?" Wells paused just inside the entrance to the formal gardens and turned to face Junmi. For a moment, before she lowered her gaze, Wells saw the intelligence and natural curiosity in her eyes. Eyes that in another time reflected the confidence and spunk of a beautiful investigative reporter. Wells also sensed the same stubbornness and strong will in Junmi that he had encountered in Lois Lane.
Junmi smiled. Bowing, she explained. "Allow me to explain, Weru-san. The correct use of the honorific would be Lady-san or Junmi-san. To call me 'Lady Junmi-san' is …" Her voice trailed off as she searched for the correct word.
Wells smiled. "Overkill?"
Junmi's eyes twinkled with laughter. "Ah, yes. As you say. Overkill."
Wells bowed. "I fear that I shall continue to … overkill. Your customs are unique to your people, Lady Junmi-san."
Junmi lowered her eyes and bowed slightly. "As yours are to you, Weru-san."
"Yes, quite so." Wells stepped aside and bowed gallantly, allowing Junmi to lead the way along the stone path.
"I trust, Weru-san, that your sleeping accommodations were pleasurable."
"Yes, my lady, quite satisfactory. The bed … what did Mariko-san call it?"
"Yes. Futon. Most extraordinary thing. I slept most soundly." Keeping up the pretense he had started during the tea ceremony, he added, "I never knew that sleeping on the floor would make my back feel so much better."
Junmi smiled. "If your back continues to bother you, perhaps later you may wish to partake of another of our customs? Jontaro-san is quite proficient at shiatsu massage as part of the therapy process."
"Perhaps, Lady Junmi-san, perhaps."
He stopped by a bench. "But, I don't believe that we are here to discuss my back. Mariko has shown me one of your poems. Perhaps I could hear more. You did say you were interested in my, ah … professional opinion?"
Junmi blushed slightly and gestured for Wells to sit. Settling on the bench with him, she replied. "Yes, I have written a few haikus." Her voice lowered slightly. "But I feel that they are unworthy to be read by another."
"Nonsense. I'm sure that they are Pulitzer Prize-worthy."
Junmi's gaze turned puzzled. "Pu-ris-ter? I have never heard of this prize."
Wells chastised himself for his slip of the tongue. "Um, yes. Well, you see … it's a …" The writer in him supplied the explanation. "A high honor that is given to writers and poets in another country. I happened upon it during my travels." There, that was explanation enough without giving away anything, he hoped.
Junmi seemed satisfied. "You have been to many places, Weru-san?"
"You could say that, Lady Junmi-san. I have seen many places and met many people."
"I probably should not say this, Weru-san, but I envy you."
"I shall live my life here in Nagasaki. I shall never see the many places that you have seen, nor meet the many people that you have met. I shall tend to my father's house until such time as a marriage is arranged for me." Wells heard her soft sigh and even softer next words. "I shall never have adventure."
Wells smiled to himself. He reached out and patted her hand. "Do not lose hope, m'dear. I have a feeling that your … um, adventures … are still ahead of you."
Junmi looked at Wells, her eyes bright. She smiled. A movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention and she turned away from Wells.
Wells followed her gaze. Kenji and Jimi were just outside of the gardens, Jimi listening half-heartedly to what Kenji was telling him as they walked about the compound. Wells turned back to Junmi at her sigh. She smiled sheepishly.
"It appears, Weru-san, that Tanaka-sensei has a reluctant student in my brother."
Wells heard the change in her voice when she spoke Kenji's name, almost a physical caress. "I am sure that Kenji-san will teach Jimi-san all that he is able to."
Junmi was curious. "Have you known Tanaka-sensei long, Weru-san?"
Wells shook his head. "I met him only recently, but he comes highly recommended from Father Bernardo." He decided to test the waters. "I also sense that Kenji is a man of great honor and takes his duties and responsibilities seriously. He seems to me to be a fine young man."
Junmi nodded. "As you say, Weru-san. A most honorable man." She turned and watched Kenji and her brother for a moment longer. As she watched, she frowned. There was something about the Sensei that seemed out of place. She studied Kenji. Jimi was kicking a stone ahead of him as he and Kenji walked about the compound. Walked. That was it! Junmi had made note of Kenji's uneven gait yesterday. And today, as she watched Kenji walk …
Her mind raced ahead even as she pulled from her memory the few moments that she had seen The Tai in the marketplace. The height, the broadness of the shoulders, the air of self-assuredness, they would appear to be the same. Everything that she sensed about The Tai, the nobility, the honor, she also sensed in Kenji. Everything, except the limp. She wondered …
Her thoughts were interrupted by a slight coughing from Wells. Startled, she turned to him, embarrassment rising on her face at her inattention. "Please forgive me, Weru-san. I was just … thinking."
Wells smiled. He had watched Junmi watching Kenji. And he had seen Kenji every so often sneak a glance toward Junmi. The silent communication that seemed to pass between the two young people wasn't lost on Wells. He knew that the souls recognized each other even before the people themselves did.
He cleared his throat again. "Quite all right, Lady Junmi-san." He looked about him. "These gardens would seem to be the ideal place to … think."
Junmi warmed to the change in subject. With a last surreptitious glance at Kenji, Junmi stood and gestured for Wells to join her. As they walked, Junmi explained. "These gardens were designed by my ancestors, Weru-san. Father has used them often for meditation and contemplation. He says that he comes here to discuss his problems with my departed mother. He feels her close to him here in the gardens."
Wells nodded. "I understand." He looked around him once more. "These remind me of the gardens my mother kept. She would often talk to the flowers, saying that Father heard her better that way."
Smiling, Junmi saw Jimi walking past a side gate. She bowed to Wells. "Excuse me, Weru-san. I must speak with my brother about his sen … er, his studies."
Wells stood and bowed. "As you wish, Lady Junmi-san." He moved to leave, but stopped at Junmi's gesture.
"Please, Weru-san. Stay and enjoy the gardens. As a writer, I'm sure that there is much here for you to describe." With a final bow, Junmi left the gardens through the side gate Jimi had just passed.
Watching her depart, Wells sighed and continued his walk, trying to organize his thoughts. Earlier in the day, as Mariko had brought him his breakfast, Wells had struck up a conversation with her and had found her to be a fount of information. In Japanese, Junmi meant "pure beauty." Aptly named, Wells thought. The Lady Junmi was indeed a pure beauty, both physically and of the heart. Mariko's face had glowed with pride as she had spoken of Junmi's kindness and generosity to the house's many servants as well as to many in town.
It was then that Mariko had shown Wells one of Junmi's haikus, one that she had received from Junmi as a birthday present. The simplicity of the words conveyed a wealth of feelings and images, all in seventeen syllables. Wells was impressed. She was indeed a talented writer, in any lifetime.
He straightened his waistcoat and continued walking along the stoned pathway.
"You are standing on my head."
"It would help if you were taller."
"I'm taller than you, older brother."
"And yet your grand stature is not enough to give me a view over this wall."
"Then perhaps you should be down here, and I should be looking over the top." Eiji grunted.
"What perfect logic, little brother. Would not two sticks still make the same length, no matter which ends are joined? Quit swaying."
"Then it's Nobuo's fault. He must be weak of back or will."
"If my masters would kindly notice, a ladder is most suited for employment in this situation," Nobuo muttered, straining on hands and knees with Eiji's heels digging into his back.
"We should have found a lower section of wall for our purpose," Eiji grumbled.
"The easy way is not always the best way. No one will suspect us of infiltrating Hosokawa's estate from this side. We can get a much better idea of the layout if we are not busy dodging groundskeepers and servants."
"Of course not. The wall grows straight out of the hillside. Who would suspect anyone to be stupid enough to invade from here?"
"And yet, this work will be for nothing if they hear us." Eichi growled. "Be silent."
He tried to get a toehold on Eiji's ear, but found no support in the malleable flesh. Getting a grip on the edge of the wall, he pushed off his brother's forehead, but in their precarious positions, the younger ronin was hardly a firm brace. Eichi kicked, Eiji fell back, and underneath them, Nobuo collapsed from the shifting balance of weight.
Eiji yelped as he fell, tumbling head over feet with Nobuo down the hill. Eichi hung tight to the wall for a moment before his arm, weakened by the painful reminder of the Tai's superior swordsmanship, gave out and he too dropped from the wall.
He stood at the base of it, looking for his lazy brother and that useless stepping stool of a servant in the brush down the slope. He beat the dust from his clothing, and walked down to where they were picking themselves out of a thicket, muttering, "Amateurs."
Kenji heard a cry, and a splintering crash of wood and rustling leaves. Mindful of Lord Hosokawa's warning to keep his son from harm, he made an excuse to keep the excitable boy from following him into harm's way, and assigned him to practice writing until he returned.
He limped around the corner of the building, shedding his kimono in the trees as he made his way towards the disturbance he'd heard, and slowing only long enough to slip the pebble from his right shoe. By the time hewas tying the mask over his head he was running swiftly along an overgrown path.
He reached the wall marking the edge of the estate grounds and slowed, listening and looking for signs of trouble. He heard only the wind through the leaves. He scaled the wall easily and walked along the top, scouring the hillside below.
"Well, brother, have you any more bright ideas?" Eiji was working a thistle branch from his collar.
Eichi turned to him sharply. "I always have a plan."
"As brilliant as this, I'm sure …"
Eichi clamped his hand over his brother's mouth, having heard a noise uphill. "Shhh," he whispered, as he saw the gold mon of the Tai on the black-robed figure atop the wall, his kimono fluttering around him in the wind. The orange and red hues of sunset outlining him in a glowing brilliance unnerved Eichi.
A searing pain shot through the distracted ronin's hand as Eiji's teeth sought blood. Clenching his jaw, Eichi yanked his hand away.
"Don't ever do that again," Eiji hissed.
Eichi felt rage well up, and only managed to keep a clear head with the knowledge of the Tai nearby. He gestured silently for the others to look up at the wall at the Tai moving closer to the point they had attempted to climb. They melted silently into the trees and along a path back to their horses.
It wasn't until they were a safe distance away that anyone spoke again.
"Now, what do you suppose *he* was doing there?" Eichi wondered aloud. "Unless he is supernatural, there is no way he can be everywhere. We must make sure he is distracted if we are to succeed in our ultimate goal."
Junmi found her brother using the wrong end of his ink brush to toy with a beetle. "Where is Kenji-sensei? Why are you not doing your lessons?"
Jimi looked up. "He left suddenly. He said he had to speak with Father Bernardo … something about the Rice-Of-The-Moon Club? He told me to practice writing."
"Then you should do as he says. Get back to your rice paper and your ink pot, little brother." She hustled him back to his studies. To herself, she wondered, "Father Bernardo? Rice-Of-The-Moon Club? How very strange the gaijin are."
The Tai worked his way along the wall until he noticed scuff marks in the dirt outside the perimeter. Even in the dimming light, his eye picked up the path of broken grass and bushes leading down the hill and into the forest. He jumped down and followed the footprints which became hoofprints and were finally lost among many other tracks along a well-used wagon trail. But he had seen enough to know it wasn't an accidental occurrence along the estate wall. Returning to his clothing left hidden among the bushes in the estate, he quickly changed and replaced the pebble which reminded him to limp. He made his way back to the gardens thinking about what he had seen.
He was pleased but rather surprised to not only find Jimi where he had left him, following instructions to practice his characters. Assuming his role of tutor once more, he pushed aside the discoveries of the day. There would be time after dinner to contemplate what they might mean.
Wells found Kenji in a corner of the Hosokawa estate's garden. He was sitting, his legs folded underneath him, staring at a large stone in a rippled pool of sand. As Wells approached, the young man looked up, startled.
"I beg your pardon, my boy, please forgive my intrusion."
Kenji smiled shyly, but his mind still seemed distant. "Weru-san, there is much to consider in this life, is there not?"
Wells beamed. "Ah, yes, I believe there is."
They remained silent for a few minutes, before Wells finally broached the subject.
"You have a heavy burden placed on you, Kenji-san. But believe me, you are quite up to the task." Wells held out a pebble he had hidden in his palm, removed his shoe, and dropped the rock in. "You see, I do understand."
Kenji looked at Wells sharply, the mask about to drop over his features, when something in the open kindness of Wells' eyes stopped him. He dropped his gaze, and spoke. "Yes, Weru-san. It is so. These are dangerous times to live in. I am … kept very busy."
"You have great honor in your soul, Kenji-sensei. I see it radiate from you."
Now Kenji was truly embarrassed, to be so spoken of by this strange little gaijin. How could he know this? "You … are a writer … is this … how you would speak? Is this how you would understand such things?"
"Ah, my boy … well, perhaps, in a way, yes, that could be an answer." Wells tilted on his heels and looked around. "But I do not know everything. I am only an observer."
Kenji nodded, seeming to understand.
Wells looked about to say something, but held his tongue as he watched Kenji consider his next words. A man of thought, and of action, Wells realized. He does not take his situation lightly. He never would. Instead, Wells waited, and looked over this austere landscape Kenji had been contemplating on, the sand raked meticulously into corrugated ridges which flowed like currents around rock islands. His eye was drawn to follow the paths of the sand.
Kenji spread his arm out towards the stone in the sand. "Who is the rock, and who is the sand, Weru-san? Do we stand motionless while the world moves around us? Do we force that movement? Or are we the sand, coursing past the stationary object? Have I become what I am because of my own actions, or do I only follow the stream fate has set me on?"
"If there's one thing I've learned in all my … travels … it is a comprehension of human … er, certain humans' … nature, Kenji-san. You do not simply *react* to the events around you … you take action that is uniquely your own."
Kenji smiled again, that engaging flash of whiteness Wells would know in any age. "I hope you are right, Weru-san. Otherwise," and now, he pointed further into the rock garden, "I might become like that stone over there, overwhelmed with the unceasing sand spilling over it."
After a moment, he stood, very slowly, and pulled a gleaming sword from the folds of his kimono. "This was my father's. It is all I have left. Do you know about the katana, Weru-san?"
Wells shook his head.
"The metal is folded, layer upon layer, until the edge is honed to a fine, sharp, strong blade." Kenji fingered the sword. "Usually, when a warrior becomes a samurai, he has his own sword made, one that tells who he is, where he comes from." Kenji continued staring at the blade. "I never got the privilege, Weru-san."
Wells placed a comforting hand on the young warrior's shoulder. "Why have you no sword, my boy?"
"Yes," a voice asked from the shadows. "I would very much like to know this also, Kenji-san."
Wells and Kenji looked up as Lady Junmi emerged from the darkness. There was an expression on her face that was hard to decipher, though Wells suspected that hundreds of years from now, her soul would carry that same expression as she triumphantly removed a famous pair of glasses.
"Lady Junmi … I … that is …" Kenji found himself taken utterly by surprise and was hopelessly tongue-tied, as if she didn't usually manage to disconcert him enough as it was.
She moved very close to him and looked deeply into his startled eyes. "What you say here, Kenji-san, is a secret I will keep."
Wells removed his bowler hat and fanned himself.
"Dear me, a stunning stealth approach," he said, beads of perspiration dotting his forehead. "I suppose my attire is inappropriate to the climate," he babbled, dabbing his face with a handkerchief. "But when I tried on that silk kimono young Lord Jimi offered, I looked rather like Lady Hornsby at Ascot. Including the mustache, unfortunately. I remember this extraordinary hat she wore — "
Kenji, his eyes inexorably locked with Junmi's, spoke softly. "I'm sorry you have to retire so early, Weru-san."
"How's that, my boy? I wasn't going to re … oh, quite!" he said, finally catching on. "Yes indeed. All the activity of these last few days, plus the food and intoxicating air, the — "
Wells covered his mouth and coughed. "Goodnight, Kenji-san, Lady Junmi." He turned on his heel and was gone.
The Lady Junmi thought herself bold, but this sudden forwardness from what had been a rather even-tempered sensei caused her to break the intense eye contact. She began to walk, smiling inwardly as Kenji-san followed at her side.
"So, you're not a sensei after all," she stated matter-of-factly.
Kenji touched the sleeve of her kimono. "Lady Junmi," he said, causing her to face him once again. "This is a dangerous secret. If you knew — "
"I'm safe here. My father's house is not a powerful one, and Nagasaki is quite remote," she said reassuringly. Then she looked at Kenji for a moment, and concern filled her eyes. "Those things you said to Weru-san about the stone and the sand. Don't ever forget that Japan is a stone, Kenji-san." She impulsively touched his hand. "It has changed so little for so long, that even if the great samurai Tajima, who cut arrows hundreds of years before you and I were born, were to return, he would know this Japan."
Kenji took a deep breath. The touch of Junmi's hand had stolen away the very air in his body. "Are you saying the sand can never win against the stone …my lady Junmi?"
"No. I'm not saying that," she smiled, equally moved by their physical contact. "I've seen sand lifted by the wind with such force that it polished away the blemishes on a stone, and old Jontaro once told me that an earthquake had shifted the sand near the shore so significantly that a great stone tumbled into the sea."
"But …" Kenji said, returning her smile, knowing she had left a qualifier unspoken.
"But one grain of sand needs an ally to be stronger," she said. "Tell me about the Tai."
Kenji made up his mind. He didn't know why he should trust her, but the feeling was so strange whenever he was near her. He knew he could deny her nothing. He sighed. "There was a struggle a generation or so ago. Let's just say that my people lost, and fell into disfavor."
Junmi stepped very close to him. "A voice carries on a still night. Whisper, Kenji-san."
In the gathering darkness of the garden, Kenji guided the Lady Junmi to a low bench. "We may as well be comfortable. And …" he paused nervously, "… if anyone comes, they must not suspect what we discuss." He wanted to add more, but hesitated. She was of the nobility and he did not wish to seem forward.
She smiled, meeting his eyes once before sinking gracefully to the bench. "If anyone comes, we will convince them that we speak only words of love."
She was half-convinced that it would be nothing more than the truth. Over the past few days, she had glimpsed in Kenji a kind and sensitive man. Now that she knew (or thought she knew, although she was very sure of her guess) that he was the Tai as well, she saw his courage and nobility of soul. When she added that knowledge to the strong attraction that had been present from the start … she was sure of what she wanted. The only thing she didn't know was what he wanted.
She glanced up at him. He was studying her with a tender look in his eyes. She blushed, but returned to the question at hand. "You were going to tell me, Kenji-san, about the Tai?"
Kenji shook himself back to reality, aware that he had been lost in appreciation of Lady Junmi's many charms. "Ah yes. Of course, I know nothing for certain," he began, giving her a significant look.
She nodded, understanding that he meant just the opposite. "Of course. But all the countryside has been speculating. Please, let me hear your … guesses."
"Well, then. When a samurai family has fallen into disfavor, its members are forbidden to display the symbol of their house, or to act as samurai. But when there is so much disruption and banditry … a member of that house might not be able to simply stand by and do nothing while innocents suffer."
"He might even," Lady Junmi continued softly, seeing the way of it now, "disguise himself and perform good deeds in, well, not secrecy, but anonymity."
"Indeed he might," Kenji assented, pleased at her ready understanding.
"And it's even possible," Junmi added, with a note of mischief creeping into her voice, "that when he was *not* being the Tai, he might take work as a sensei, and fake a limp to throw off suspicion."
"And if the lady of the house didn't believe the limp?" Kenji guessed, beginning to smile as well.
"Why then, her curiosity would be engaged, and she might even endeavor to find out more about the sensei in question," Junmi answered.
"And so here we are," Kenji replied.
"Where would we go from here?" Lady Junmi asked.
"That," he said softly, looking her deep in the eyes, "is up to you, my lady."
As of one accord they both leaned forward, their eyes exchanging messages of love that their lips had yet to dare.
Just before their lips touched, however, a shout arose from over the Hosogawa's wall. "Fire, fire!"
Kenji jerked upright, looking around wildly.
"Fire?" Junmi asked, still dazed from the near kiss. "Where?"
As if in answer, more shouts rose from near the house. "The city is on fire!"
Kenji turned and spoke quickly to Junmi. "I must go and help fight the fires, as your father is doing. I'll return as soon as I can."
Junmi chewed her lip at the restriction, but she knew that she would be of no use against a fire. "Be safe, Kenji-san."
He nodded and ran off, leaving her standing, staring after him. "Be safe, my love," she whispered into the dark of the garden.
Jontaro, Mariko's husband of twenty-five years, and loyal servant to the house of Hosokawa for nearly as many, had hurried to the stable the instant he heard the distant fire bell tolling. He had to release the horses quickly. The fire had already claimed a small outbuilding, and the grains and hay stored in the stable would act like kindling, burning the stable to the ground in minutes.
The horses were already panicked, banging against their stall doors. Much to Jontaro's horror, Lord Hosokawa himself was trying to mask the eyes of an expectant mare who had become frantic and combative due to the smell of the approaching smoke.
"Lord Hosokawa, please!" Jontaro called, trying to be heard over the din of the frightened animals. "I will tend the horses!"
It was no use, Hosokawa could not hear him. Jontaro rushed toward the stall just as the mare reared. The back of her head hit a crossbeam, breaking it in half. One end began to swing down.
Jontaro pushed Hosokawa, sending his master tumbling over the low gate and out of harm's way, but Jontaro was not so fortunate. The broken, heavy beam came crashing down, pushing him into the corner as easily as a child's hand could have pushed a doll. He moaned in pain as the jagged end caught him in the thigh, pinning him in place.
Hosokawa got to his feet and ran to the stall. He opened the gate and the frightened mare galloped past, its eyes gone white with fear.
Hosokawa looked at the beam. "It has only snagged your clothing, Jontaro-san," he said, looking at the tear in his servant's garment. "But it's putting pressure on your leg." Hosokawa tugged, but the beam was too heavy. "I'll summon help, Jontaro-san," he said, patting the older man's shoulder, and ran from the stable.
A young samurai dressed in a fire cloak entered shortly after. He began unbolting stalls and then moved away. He placed two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The terrified horses followed the sound in the smoke and confusion and exited the stable which was itself now starting to burn. The samurai, satisfied his job was done, turned to leave, but heard someone moaning nearby. He hurried to Jontaro.
"Take it easy," Kenji soothed.
"Leave, samurai," Jontaro groaned. "I can feel the heat. There's no time left."
Kenji, unheeding of the old man's words, pulled with all his strength against the beam, but it would not budge. Kenji was baffled, the beam was not that large, but then he noticed one of its jagged spikes had buried itself in the stall floor. Kenji pulled out his wakizashi.
Jontaro's eyes widened. "No! I am an old man — do not kill yourself over me."
Kenji smiled. "I have no intention of committing seppuku, Jontaro-san," he said and began digging away at the buried spike with his wakizashi. "The gaijin Weru-san told me that there are so many rules from the land he comes from that even eating one type of food with the wrong implement would be a disgrace," Kenji panted as he continued digging rhythmically. "A samurai killing himself because a beam of wood defeated him would likewise be a disgrace," he said.
"You know my name, samurai?"
"That's got it," Kenji said with relief and swung the beam away and helped Jontaro to his feet.
He pulled the old man's arm over his shoulder and helped him from the burning stable. Once they were clear of the structure, Kenji eased Jontaro into a sitting position against an earthen embankment that acted as a firebreak, protecting Lord Hosokawa's home from the approaching fire.
"You didn't answer me, samurai," Jontaro smiled. "How do you know my name?"
Kenji looked left and right, and then opened the front of his fire cloak.
"The mon of the Tai!"
Kenji winced. "Please, Jontaro-san, any louder and they would have heard you at Osaka Castle."
"I'm sorry," Jontaro laughed. "It's just that my wife and I have no children, and so Lady Junmi has been like a daughter to us, and then when the Tai appeared …" Jontaro fell silent, obviously embarrassed by what he was about to say.
Kenji knelt next to him. "What, Jontaro-san?"
"You'll think me a foolish old man," he said wistfully. "But if I ever had a son, I would have been proud if he had been like you."
Kenji tried to swallow. "I … I lost my father long ago, Jontaro-san and so perhaps I am as much in need of a father as you are a son." He saw tears glisten in the old man's eyes. "Besides," Kenji smiled, patting Jontaro's hand, "there is an old saying that the shortest route to a son is a charming daughter, and the lady Junmi …" He sighed. "There aren't enough words in three alphabets to do her justice."
"Thank you … I don't know what to call you."
"Kenji-san will do."
"The sensei?" he asked, the astonishment clear in his voice.
"Yes, I …" Kenji interrupted himself when he saw kites fluttering in the sky above the smoke. It was the signal from Father Bernardo that the Tai was needed. "I have to go … father, but I always come back." So saying, Kenji ran off, vanishing quickly from view.
"Goodbye, son," Jontaro whispered.
All the shouting, smoke and excitement provided excellent cover for two darkly-clad figures as they slipped over the wall of the Hosokawa garden. They were fortunate, in fact, that there was so much noise because otherwise someone might have overheard their under-voiced squabbling.
"You might have noticed that the wind was blowing this way, idiot. What do you think will happen to this precious plan of yours if the fire heads this way?"
"We'll have plenty of time, just keep your haori on."
"Fine. And just how are you planning on getting inside the house?"
"We'll find an unguarded window."
"That's it? Father was right, you are the dumb one."
As they made their way through the unfamiliar grounds in the ever-growing darkness, they lost their way several times, a fact that Eiji did not neglect to point out to Eichi.
"If it wasn't so *smokey* around here, I could see where I was going!"
Fortunately for them however, they finally made it to the house, and to their delight spotted the object of their search strolling across an arched bridge in the back garden.
They crept closer, almost giving themselves away in their excitement and anxiety to be away before the fires had been put out. From the sounds on the other side of the wall, it seemed that their attempt at arson had gone about as well as their recent attempt at skulking about.
Junmi paced back and forth across the bridge, watching the glow of the fires from this vantage point. The smoke seemed nearer, billowing above the area of the estate where the stables were located. Her mind was so engrossed with thoughts of the dangers that Kenji and her father were facing that she wasn't aware of the sounds of the approaching kidnappers until they were almost upon her.
When she did hear them, she turned to what she thought must be her brother coming to look for her, and saw instead two masked and cloaked figures. They had grabbed her before she could cry out but they were not able to secure their prize without incurring a few bruises.
No one laid hands on the Lady Junmi without suffering the consequences.
*** An hour later, a very tired Kenji and Lord Hosokawa returned to find the household in a uproar.
Junmi was nowhere to be found.
Lord Hosokawa was quick to question his people and then muster a group of samurai loyal to his house. They were sent out to search the countryside for his precious daughter.
Kenji stayed only long enough to hear what a shame-faced Jimi was telling his angry father before slipping away into the darkness. He made a thorough search of the gardens and then, grim-faced, set off to saddle his horse, his tiredness and sore muscles forgotten.
He'd found something which had sent a chill straight to his heart. A man with a crescent-shaped notch in the heel of his right boot had been in the garden. Kenji had seen that self-same boot print already once that day when he'd searched the ground around the garden's southern edge after hearing those strange noises.
Whoever had kidnapped Junmi had also been sneaking around Lord Hosokawa's well-tended garden, and Kenji was very afraid that he knew who that was.
Wells intercepted him as he made his way across the grounds of the estate.
"Where are you going, Kenji-san?"
"I must find the Lady Junmi, Weru-san. If I hurry I may still be able to overtake the cowards who have abducted her."
"But, my boy, you are alone. You could be facing a considerable number of them."
"I am aware of that," Kenji replied grimly.
"But you are only one man …"
"One man can make a difference, Weru-san. It is the way I have lived my life."
"Then at least let me accompany you. Perhaps I can help."
Kenji nodded. "Very well, but we must hurry."
"I've thought it over, brother," Eiji said slowly as he tenderly touched his throbbing side and scratched face. "You're right. *You* can marry the Lady Junmi."
"Coward," Eichi hissed as he struggled to keep the still fighting Junmi on his horse.
"No, just practical. I figure once she's finished with you, I'll be able to marry the 'grieving widow.'"
"You idiot!" Eichi snarled. "Thanks to you, marriage to Lady Junmi is no longer a possibility for either of us!"
"What do you mean, brother?"
"You forgot to bring along the blindfold," Eichi replied in a voice laced with exasperation. "She has seen us and now there is no way for me to present myself as an acceptable suitor. *Now* our only option is to hold her for ransom."
"If I forgot the blindfold, dearest brother, it's because I was so captivated by your preparations for our so-called conflagration, that I lost all power of reasoned thought."
"Hah! I would have thought it impossible to lose what you never had!" Eichi replied contemptuously.
Another snide rejoinder was perched on Eiji's lips, but he hesitated when his brother directed a murderous glance in his direction. Having seen the destructive consequences of that look in the past, Eiji decided that discretion was the better part of valor and his tone became more affable.
"Personally, brother, after tonight I find the prospect of having Lord Hosokawa's gold without his *lovely* daughter much more appealing."
"Perhaps you are right, Eiji," Eichi reluctantly admitted as he clamped his hand over Junmi's nose and mouth, temporarily stilling her flailing arms and legs. "Besides, even if I can't marry Lady Junmi, I'm sure I'll find a way to *amuse* myself with her while we await payment," he added with a leer.
As Eichi adjusted his hand so that it covered just her mouth, Junmi responded to his lustful comments by sinking her teeth into the palm until he screamed.
"Again I must agree with you brother," Eiji said sardonically. "This could be quite amusing."
They reached the mountain hideaway none too soon for the weary brothers.
"Who would have thought one who carries the name meaning 'pure beauty' could be such a hellion in a kimono?"
"Brother, looks can be deceiving," Eichi said as he lowered Junmi onto the ground.
Junmi looked from one brother to another and saw this was her chance to escape. As soon as she was free from Eichi's hold she began to run, heading for the trees and bushes.
Eiji began to shout for her to stop only to reap the sharp-tongued remarks of his older brother.
"Eiji, you are one amazingly stupid person if you think she will listen to you."
Junmi reached a tree with a low branch, grabbed it and pulled herself up in one swift movement. She watched as the two brothers ran beneath and past her hiding place.
A smile played at her lips at what she had just done. Now, she thought, how do I get to a horse and make my way back to Kenji? She paused only briefly when she realized she had put wanting to return to Kenji above her father.
She saw her chance as the other ronin went out in the opposite direction looking for her, leaving a horse unattended.
She leaped from her perch and hit the ground running only to be caught by the strong arms of Eiji. A wicked laugh came from him as he held her off the ground.
"Look, older brother, your younger brother has caught the prize."
At that remark, Junmi used all her strength to toss Eiji over her shoulder and down onto the ground in a single movement. He lay there stunned, then rolled from her as she approached him with fire in her eyes.
"No man will call me prize," she stated angrily. "Move away from me or I will do to you what my father has taught me to do to slugs in our garden."
Eiji cowered away as she took one step closer to him. "Go. I will say you were rescued by the Tai."
"That won't be necessary," said a deep voice in the shadows.
Life slowed to a crawl for Eiji. He watched Junmi's eyes widen in surprise. She started to spin in place, but instead crumpled to the ground to lie at his feet.
Eichi stood over his brother, a contemptuous sneer on his face, and his short sword drawn. "Maybe I should crush you like a cowardly slug, brother."
Eiji scrambled backwards in the grass until his back hit a tree. He used the tree to lever himself upright, his eyes never leaving the gleaming edge of his brother's wakizashi. Suddenly Eichi froze, his hand going to his katana.
Eiji's eyes met his brother's and saw something he'd never seen there before. Fear. It was then that he realized that the tree behind him was no tree. He dropped to the ground and rolled away from the black-garbed figure behind him. Making sure that their attention was on each other, Eiji melted into the shadows, leaving the Tai and Eichi to face each other.
The tip of Eichi's katana trembled, and the barely healed cut on his shoulder ached. The look in the eyes of the Tai held no fear, no anger. Only resolute purpose. And, Eichi feared, death.
A groan rose from near his feet, and the slight movement at the bottom of his peripheral vision almost broke his concentration. The flicker of concern that crossed his enemy's eyes puzzled him, but not enough for him to miss the break — the sudden downward glance at the lady at his feet.
Eichi struck, but his attack was spoiled by a sudden cry from behind him. "Kenji! Look out!"
The tip of his katana passed through the material at the back of the Tai's kimono as he ducked under Eichi's swing. Kenji rolled under the stroke, coming to his knees over the prone body of Junmi, still shrugging off her unconsciousness.
Eichi had barely registered his opponent's proximity when he saw the hilt of a wakizashi protruding from his stomach. The whisper "A scholar?" were his last words as he slipped off the blade into the grass.
Over the body of his enemy, the Tai met the eyes of Jimi standing in the shadows, and behind him, Wells and Nobuo.
Kenji looked down at the bloodied wakizashi.
"Kenji-san," Junmi whispered. She was finding it difficult to sit up. Kenji helped her.
"I'm right here, Lady Junmi," he said, supporting her against his shoulder.
She looked at the wakizashi. "The blood, you weren't — "
"No," he said softly. "It's Eichi's blood. I suppose it's for the best that I don't live as a warrior. I never could kill and feel any kind of honor in it."
"Oh, please," a familiar, sarcastic voice spoke. All faces turned to Eiji, who was sporting an arquebus. "As killing becomes more efficient, honor has less to do with it than winning, and I *like* winning."
"Oh dear," Wells whispered. "A primitive firearm."
Eiji raised his eyebrows. "How perceptive, gaijin. Yes, a gift from a Dutch trader. Actually a swap," Eiji laughed. "I left my sword in his throat, and he didn't object to me walking off with this weapon."
Kenji helped Junmi to her feet, but made certain he stood between her and Eiji. "What do you want, Eiji-san."
"An honorific for me, Kenji-sensei? I'm deeply touched, really. I like the mon of an eagle on your armor. It makes a good target."
"Then take aim, Eiji-san," Kenji said. No sign of fear was in his voice or eyes. "But I've seen those weapons. Make certain you don't miss, and that the powder is dry, and the flint is fresh, because I promise you, one misfire is all you'll get."
Eiji considered the Tai's words. He had in truth never fired such a weapon, and certainly had it been more efficient, the Dutch trader from whom he liberated it with such ease would have had the upper hand. Doubt plaguing the cowardly mind of Eiji, he stepped much closer to the Tai, at least eliminating the possibility of missing.
Eiji readjusted the arquebus one last time.
Kenji stood straight, facing down the ronin. He was conscious of Junmi behind him.
"Lady," he whispered, "Please move back. If he does hit me, I'm not certain that the ball will stop before it hits you …"
Junmi shook her head. "If he's aiming at you, that's the safest place to be."
Eiji scowled at that comment.
"Besides," she lowered her voice so that only Kenji could hear it. "If you are dead, I do not want to live."
Kenji's eyes began to glow, and he faced Eiji with a new confidence. "Go on, then," he mocked. "Fire if you have the courage."
"I'll show you what I've got — " but they would never know what he meant to say, for at that moment, Jimi rushed in from the side and knocked Eiji to the ground.
Kenji laughed, delighted at this turn of events. Jimi and Wells took charge of tying up Eiji, leaving Kenji free to turn to Lady Junmi.
Kenji started to speak, but Junmi forestalled him. She reached up and pulled the mask from his head. "I want to look at your face. For a moment I thought I was going to lose you." She traced a finger over the eagle sign on his chest. She was gazing into his eyes with love and admiration and Kenji forgot what he had been going to say. They moved closer to each other as if drawn by magnets until their lips touched.
Eiji snorted. "Please blindfold me. If I have to watch this, I will be sick." Wells chuckled at the familiar line.
Jimi was watching with wide eyes. If his father heard about this, he would be furious. Noble maidens did not go around kissing almost strangers, especially in public. But then he remembered. Kenji was the Tai, and he, Jimi, had saved his life.
"Junmi!" he shouted. "Did you see? I saved the Tai's life?" He ran around the clearing repeating the words to any who would listen. Junmi suddenly realized what she was doing and pulled away from Kenji, blushing furiously.
Kenji cleared his throat. "Lady Junmi, please forgive me." He lowered his voice and whispered so only she could hear. "I love you."
She whispered back, "I love you too," and then turned to her excited brother and Wells. "What are we going to do with this dog? He knows the Tai's secret also."
"He must be given over to the proper authorities, Junmi-san," Kenji said. "He is our prisoner."
Junmi looked mutinous. It was clear that she now valued Kenji's safety over the life of one such as Eiji. She was also amazed that he could behave so honorably to one who just moments before had been trying to kill him.
Young Jimi, too, was all for dispatching the villain then and there, but Kenji wouldn't hear of it. Eiji must pay for his crimes, but not by their hands.
Wells watch Jimi's face change at the note of censure he could hear in Kenji's voice. Apparently Kenji noted it, too, for he came forward to lay his hand gently on the boy's shoulder. "I haven't yet thanked you for saving my life tonight, young Jimi-san. You were very brave, but … how did you know where to find me?"
Pleased to once again see approval in the eyes of someone he so admired, Jimi was more than willing to describe in detail all about how he had followed Kenji and Wells.
Kenji glanced in Junmi's direction and could see a tired smile on her face as she listened to her brother's tale of adventure. She'd had quite an adventure of her own that night, but she would not be one whose courageous spirit would let her admit to fatigue, so while he listened to Jimi, Kenji whistled for his horse and then tenderly helped Junmi to mount.
They set off in the direction of Nagasaki, with Jimi still chattering away until he was rudely interrupted by Eiji.
"Please, can't somebody make him be quiet? It's bad enough that I'm to be dragged through the streets like a common criminal, but must I listen *that*?"
"You *are* a common criminal," Kenji reminded him coldly.
"That mon of yours must be tied too tightly, because it's interfering with the flow of blood to your brain. There is nothing 'common' about me!"
Jimi looked as if he wanted to hit the boastful ronin, but Kenji once again put a hand on his shoulder and the boy subsided.
"In fact," Eiji continued, "if you let me go I can really make it worth your while."
"I doubt it," Kenji said dismissively before turning to make sure that Junmi was doing all right.
Eiji stumbled and, with his hands bound, wouldn't have been able to keep himself from falling, but Wells and Jimi reached out to steady him. Instead of being grateful, however, Eiji just swore at them. "Unhand me, you cretins!"
Kenji's eyes narrowed in anger, but still he kept his tongue. With any luck, he might be able to learn about other hideouts from this cowardly bully.
"Listen, Tai … er, Kenji … whatever you want to call yourself … I have information. Valuable information, that I'll trade for my freedom. This bandit stuff was all my brother's idea. I just want to lead a peaceful life — "
"You just wanted to kill the Tai!" Jimi interrupted to remind him.
Kenji's eyes twinkled in silent amusement at Jimi's defence of him, but he said to Eiji, "You didn't look very 'peaceful' a little while ago."
"A misunderstanding, I assure you! I was merely defending myself. Surely you can understand that." He searched Kenji's face for any sign of weakening, but saw none. This Tai business must have gone to the sensei's head. Getting desperate now, Eiji quickly looked around him for any sign of his recent fellow criminals, and when he didn't see anyone except his traveling companions, his voice took on a more urgent tone.
"Look, you want to make a name for yourself, flashing that mon all over town and moonlighting in black silk, that's your business. But I can help you. I know of one felon that the Shogun would love to get his hands on. His name is Nobuo, and he's done some very … creative things with a sword. Unfortunately, one of the people he practiced on had powerful friends."
Eiji's eyes shifted around once again, then he turned back to Kenji. "What if I could arrange for you to be able to catch this guy? I'd do that if we can strike a deal. I — "
The flow of words abruptly stopped as an arrow flew through the air, straight into Eiji's traitorous heart. Kenji swirled, drawing his wakizashi almost quicker than the eye could follow, and threw it in the direction of the arrow's flight. The bushes trembled for a moment, and then Nobuo's dead body fell to the ground.
Junmi's horse had started at the suddenness of the movement around him, so Kenji was occupied for a moment or two with quieting the frightened animal. Wells and Jimi, on the other hand, stood with mouths opened, staring from the body of Eiji to that of his assassin and back again.
"My word!" Wells muttered in awe.
Lord Hosokawa heard the return of his daughter before he saw her. The little procession attracted quite a crowd as it progressed through the town.
Before they had left the woods, Kenji had resumed his tutor's disguise and was assured by Jimi and Junmi that his secret would be safe with them. Wells told them that he also could be trusted and besides, he added, he would not be staying much longer in Japan anyway.
As soon as they reached the gate of their house, Junmi and Jimi ran forward to hug their father and show him that they were safe and unharmed. Lord Hosokawa pressed his children to him in deep gratitude and then looked over their heads to where Kenji stood.
"Sensei, you have returned to me what I value most in life. Is there any way I can repay you?"
"The safety of Lady Junmi and young Lord Jimi is enough, my lord."
Kenji bowed low and then turned to leave, but Junmi was whispering something in her father's ear.
"Wait, Sensei," Lord Hosokawa called out. "I think I know of a way to pay my debt to you." He smiled down at his daughter. "I understand you could use a friend in a high place."
As Kenji paused and waited for Lord Hosokawa to continue, Wells looked from father to daughter. He saw Junmi looking at Kenji through lowered eyelashes, her gaze soft, her eyes smiling at him. Lord Hosokawa's face was impassive, giving nothing of what he was feeling or thinking. Wells looked closer. Actually, there was something. His eyes too had a sparkle in them. What Wells saw both encouraged him and made him nervous for Kenji. He held his breath as Lord Hosokawa continued.
"If a grateful father were to petition a well-placed … friend …"
Except for Kenji's sharp intake of breath, he remained still.
"Jontaro!" Lord Hosokawa called out.
"Here, my lord." Jontaro limped forward and bowed.
"Prepare my writing utensils. I wish to send a letter to the Shogun." He smiled at Kenji as he said his next words. "I wish to petition for the creation of a new House here in Nagasaki."
Kenji and Junmi's eyes met.
"The House of Kentaka."
At Lord Hosokawa's words, Kenji looked at him in surprise before bowing deeply. "My lord. The honor is too great."
"You have brought my children back safely to me, Sensei. No honor is too great."
"Sensei-san! If the Shogun grants Father's petition, you can marry my sister!"
Junmi looked sharply at her brother. "Jimi-san …" her voice trailed off at the sound of her father's chuckling.
"As I had hoped, my son." He looked at the surprised expressions on Junmi's and Kenji's faces. "Do not forget that I know of all that goes on in this house."
Behind Lord Hosokawa, Jontaro and Mariko bowed slightly.
Wells nodded approvingly. Tugging on his waistcoat, he cleared his throat.
Lord Hosokawa turned to the Englishman. "Weru-san, your presence in my house has been … enlightening." He bowed deeply.
Wells returned the gesture, making sure that he bowed just as deeply. "As it has been for me as well, Lord Hosokawa-san." He straightened. "I have truly enjoyed my time here. But I fear my journey must continue."
Breaking with protocol, Junmi left her father's side and walked toward Wells. "I shall miss our chats, Weru-san."
Wells bowed. "As will I, Lady Junmi-san."
She pulled her fan from her obi and presented it to him. "Please. Take this as a token of my thanks and appreciation for all that you have done." Her eyes brightened. "Kenji and I will never forget you."
Wells cleared his throat. "Yes, well, quite," he said, and watched as she moved to stand by Kenji. Yes, he thought, all is right. He turned to leave, not exactly sure of the proper etiquette.
He stopped as Kenji walked toward him. "Yes, m'boy?"
Kenji began to bow, but stopped. Instead, he smiled widely, a smile so very reminiscent of Clark Kent that Wells couldn't help but return it. As Kenji continued to smile, thanks in his eyes, he slowly, tentatively extended his hand. "Thank you, Weru-san. For everything."
Wells shook Kenji's hand. "My pleasure, Kenji-san. My pleasure."
Wells sighed with satisfaction as Kenji returned to his place beside Junmi. Withdrawing his watch from the pocket in his vest, he smiled, nodded, and took his leave.
Wells closed his journal and laid his pen down beside it. With a smile he again picked up the Japanese fan and looked at it one last time before rising and walking to the open cabinet near his desk. He placed the fan carefully on the shelf beside the plume. Gazing at the fan fondly, he closed and locked the double doors.
He left the study to go straight to his library. Once there he began to search the shelves while he muttered to himself. "Where would I find that? Oh, yes, here it is."
In a book called "Japanese Houses Past and Present" he turned to the index and searched for the name Kentaka. Finding what he was looking for, he turned to page 244 and was relieved to read that the House of Kentaka was established in the year 1603 and had prospered for many generations after.
A sense of great satisfaction came over him as he closed the book and returned it to its place. His eye was caught by another book, a slim volume of poetry he had recently added to his collection.
"Ahh, perfect, just what I need on a warm summer's evening."
Wells settled into his favorite chair and began to read:
'Tonight is for poems,
And to dream of adventures
Tomorrow may bring.'