Chapter 1: Beginnings
The ocean expressed a lime green. The day was clear with a blue sky that was supposed to be a reflection of the water, but God had decided today was not the day for that to happen. Still, today had been deceiving in many ways. The ocean was rough, causing the vessel to rock back and forth with more momentum than usual. It was a constant irritant in the mind of those who crewed and operated the ship heading for shore. It would be a few hours but the ship was on schedule. They had crossed through the Philippines (from his majesty, King Phillip of Spain) and as a point of reference had shadowed the coast of China, stocking and trading goods for silk to bring to Japan. In many ways, the clear ocean was a relief since there had been fear the ship would hit a storm and capsize near the coast before they even made it to their destination. A lot of crewmen had thanked God for the safe journey and made their way through the day preparing cargo to be unloaded from their crates and barrels.
“How long until port?”, one of the idle passengers asked, his back leaning against the barrister of the ship with his arms crossed and head bowed.
“You mean Nagasaki?”, the other replied, leaning forward and looking out to sea.
“Yes”, Hans replied after a brief silence. He was a stern man, stocky in height, with fair ruffled hair after months at sea. He was dressed in the traditional way a civilian from Europe would be, more specifically the Holy Roman Empire. He was from Stuggart himself but that hadn’t stopped him at any point from wanting to travel, despite the objections from his father. In the long term, it didn’t matter really anyway. He had never seen the satisfaction in living an idle life in the city, the outside called to him. In the way the world worked, there were Kings and Queens, nobles, merchants and everyone else. They were endowed their liberties and in many ways he had to find his own as well, as was given to him by the almighty. It had caused him to move out and find somewhere else to go. A tight fitting tunic clung to his body and was a vast contrast to the trousers he wore, which flared out from the waist and cut off at the ankles where tights ended the journey to the feet; the trousers were decorated with strips on top of the fabric, the strips being a maroon compared to the green which it laid upon.
“You know why you’re here, I don’t need to remind you”, the other figure said.
“I don’t know Himmel, why don’t you tell me again?”, Hans replied irritated. The other man was a taller, slender, man who had clear blond hair, balding, and softer features. In many ways, he was also better looking compared to his stout and broad shouldered partner.
“This is my second journey to Nagasaki. Hopefully like the first time we can get trading rights over the Portuguese, those Catholic bastards”. Himmel glanced at Hans before looking out to sea again.
“So, this place is interesting from what you’ve told me. Are they really like what you’ve told me?”.
“Yeah, it’s nothing like you’ve seen before, you’ll see soon for yourself. They even look different to anything you’ve seen as well”.
“They can’t be that different, we’ve crossed some weird places”.
“Nope, these people are something else; more than anywhere we’ve been anyway”. He glanced to the side of Han’s waist.
“You’re not still carrying that thing are you?”. Hans opened his eyes and looked down to the sidearm he was carrying. It was a long blade, with an elegant conforming scabbard, accompanied by a slender handle that inwardly dipped twice to accompany two hands, cutting off with an almond shaped pommel. The blade itself was broad but tapered to an eventual point and thus formed a shallow triangle. Whoever had made it had put care into it and various anthropomorphic images had been carved into both the crossguard and pommel. The cross guard itself was a simple straight line that flared outwards towards the end and was accompanied by a beautifully etched ring. It protected the grip and measured from one start of the crossguard to the other.
“It’s a bit outdated, I mean it is 1600. You could do better for yourself, there are better swords that do the job easier. After all, a bodyguard needs a useful blade”, he said, tapping the scabbard of his cutlass. It was a simple thing, a single edged cutlass with a rectangular knuckle guard that offered modest protection.
“You better know how to use that thing, I’ve seen a lot of hands get cut”.
“I’m not completely inexperienced, I have used it before”.
Hans opened his eyes and looked at Himmel while his arms were still crossed.
“Himmel, there’s a reason why you chose me to accompany you and it wasn’t to be a drinking accomplice. From what you’ve told me, this place sounds dangerous”. It hadn’t been a simple choice but the benefits outweighed the risk, the pay was good as well; he would never get anything like that working in Stuttgart or as a Mercenary in Italy.
“You might have to be, they drink as much as us as well”, both chuckled slightly. Himmel continued.
“You’ll do fine, I know the school you served. Just be careful and keep your head down when we get there. The land’s fighting a war at the moment but things apparently have calmed down since”.
Things hadn’t been great in Europe either. His grandfather had served in the siege of Munster and was one of the first to enter the gates and slaughter the Anabaptists as a Landsknecht. When Hans grew up, he would accompany his father various times, as well as attend one of the more prestigious schools in Stuggart; purely by chance as his father knew the master from their time together. That experience had taught him to be competent. He wasn’t great compared to some fencers, but he sure wasn’t sloppy either. Apart from that, things hadn’t been as bad as they were 50 years ago; though that was obviously as a point of reference. There were still brawls, duels and skirmishes every now and then but not like before when armies took to the field. He had been a witness to what was going on in France. Needless to say, it was a bloodbath. Himmel had been right about one thing though, this land they were going to had been at war for some time. Apparently, it had been brutal, as stories made their way to Nagasaki during Himmel’s time there. He was even fortunate enough to hear about heaps of bodies and even saw some severed enemy heads at one point during his travels in West Japan. That wasn’t anything new, Hans guessed. His grandfather had told him what they did to the head Anabaptists at Munster. Tortured to death and hung in a cage on top of Munster Cathedral for all to see. The rest were decapitated, hung, drawn quartered and the lucky ones were burned alive. Both had seen their share of brutality in both the Kaiser’s Empire and the Netherlands (where Himmel was from).
“Also be weary, there’s a few bastards there who like to drink; a few good con men as well. It’s not so different from where we were”.
“You mentioned they had long swords as well”. Himmel stared at Han’s sidearm for a second.
“Well, they are long and they are swords”, both of them chuckled.
“You never did say what they’re like though, Himmel”. Himmel thought to himself for short while.
“Well, they’re kind of like your sword and mine. Like some sort of two handed messer. I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest; well, apart from a few cleavers back the Swiss own. Even then, this one’s more slender. I can’t really say anything more than that to be honest”.
“Sounds like a mystery”.
“Not as mysterious as bloody Liechtenauer!”, replied Himmel. Both men laughed before Hans turned and gazed at the clear but irritable ocean, the smell of sea salt fresh in his nostrils. Both stood in what seemed like a tranquil pause, looking aimlessly and waiting for their destination.
The arrival of the carrack to Nagasaki had happened sooner than anticipated. Different vessels docked the city, some recognisably European with their cannoned hulls and single masts which displayed the cross of Christ, while others took on a different appearance. Some were simple fishing vessel, nothing out of the ordinary and one could obviously see their basic utility. Others were something out of the bible. Various ships circled the dock, all of them almost hulking blocks with smaller sails. Each of them were laden with troops, carrying spears and wearing weird cone hats, which Hans had never seen before. From the looks of things they were stocking up to travel, probably to another part of this land.
“We’re here earlier than expected”, Himmel said out of nowhere. “Good thing as well, last time we were delayed because of pirates”.
Hans paused in surprise for a second. “Pirates? What, like Barbars?”
“Nothing like them, they had ships like those. The bastards were loaded, we thought they were coming for us at one point, they didn’t; something must have caught their attention”.
The wait to disembark took a while, by the time they had it was afternoon; they had arrived in the late morning. Climbing down to the smaller rafts was a hassle but after a few minutes they managed with the crew, while a select number stayed on the ship. Though the water was still slightly ruff, the shores gave a clear blue rather than the unsavoury lime they had experienced at sea. The city was a peculiar place. The dock was a place made of small white buildings with thatched roofs. Behind those were narrow streets full of larger walled courtyards and businesses with firm triangular tiled roofs that curved to the centre point. In the centre was a narrow and squared building that towered, like a fortification on top of a mound, narrowing as it got taller, surrounded by trees. Han’s guess was it was some sort of fortress.
“That’s Shimabara Castle, it’s ruled by the Arima Clan”.
“It’s nothing like I’ve seen before”, Hans replied.
“Nothing you’ll see will be, these people are warlords;”.
“But it’s a city, yes?”, Han’s inquired, curious about the place.
“Yes but it’s ruled by a lord, there’s no council here”.
“Why? our lands used to be like that”, he had a point. Growing up, Hans was told stories about how great lords ruled over the land. Things were changing but there were still lords and they still held large amounts of power. The rafts finally made an abrupt halt, rocking the passengers forward and slowly each of them disembarked, Himmel and Hans exiting first. They walked a short distance on a wooden palisade before coming to the entrance into the main city, a peculiar looking man in robes Hans waited there. He had a large bald spot with a ponytail sticking out on the top; like an island surrounded by ocean. He wasn’t the only one, a lot of males walking around had the same style. He wore a navy blue robe underneath a grey overtop that covered to his waste. It looked like a jacket but was thinly joined to the waist in the front and was sleeveless as an outer garment. The trousers it was connected to flared outwards towards the feet, meaning they were not visible. Around his waist was what looked like a white sash and mounted were two handles to holstered swords. They were long, slender and curved in a shallow manner. The man looked at both men and then said something in another language, slurring and barking the words at the same time. Himmel replied similarly, barking a series of alien words. Hans managed to pick up some sentences, the journey had been long and it had given Himmel the opportunity to teach him the language.
The official, that was according to Himmel, eyed Hans up and down and noticed his longsword. After some more conversing in the unintelligible language, the man let them through.
“Sorry about that, he’s an official for the local lord. They don’t like foreigners”.
“And you tell me that now?”, Hans scoffed in reply.
“I had to stop you talking, it takes a lot for them to believe you’re my bodyguard. They don’t like the thought of us carrying weapons personally, though that hasn’t stopped us from selling to them”. He had a point, the trade from the Dutch wouldn’t have been as important had it not been for the cargo of firearms they were carrying. Unless it was sunflowers or silk, the Shogun didn’t want to know.
“Looks to me like they don’t want danger on their shores”, Himmel nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, they have a lot of Christians here. The last thing they want is to have them armed. Luckily most of our cargo’s silk”.
“That’s a bit absurd given the nature of what we’re doing”,
“That it is Hans, my friend”. Both of them glanced back to see the official taking out an arquebus out of the barrel and inspecting it. After a brief scan, he nodded at both of the crewman who picked up the cargo and carried it to the nearest warehouse.
“It’s a strange world we live in”, Himmel said after sighing, putting a hand around Hans’ shoulder.
“Do they have anything good here?”.
“You’re gonna have to see for yourself as well, it’s called sake”, Hans stayed quiet before opening up.
“Is it good?”
“You could say that”. Hans stopped and looked at Himmel.
“Just a joke, Hans. It’s made from rice”.
“The hell is rice?”
“Ah, you’ve got a lot to see. Remember that drink we had from the Rum when we were in Vienna? It kind of tastes like that but like beer as well. Come, we’ll go and try it”.
“This place have a tavern?”
“Yes, just play it safe and we’ll be fine”. While they were walking, people stopped and starred. The Portuguese were one thing, the Shogun was used to dealing with them. The Dutch and Germans were another, in Japan they were a rarer breed. Peasants and merchants passing by stared at them, Japanese officials glared at them and refused to remove their eyes, all of them holstered swords at the ready.
The tavern was dingy but also warm, the weather being on good terms since it was summer. It was getting dark but it there was still remnants of daylight outside. Embers of light were being opened by torches and lanterns outside, bringing animation to the increasing darkness. A lot of the doors were sliding doors made of paper but some in the coastal city were typically wooden. The sake was good, it has a certain flavour to it which was reminiscent of fruit. Others had scents of a wheat like substance. Either way, it reminding him of the Rakia they had in Vienna except this one didn’t pack as much of a punch, though there was a different kind of push that took some getting used to. Hans didn’t mind as gulped back to ingest the clear liquid. There was conversing in the building and laughing; two Japanese men had joined them and decided to help themselves to sake as well; fortunately.
“They have to be officials”, Himmel whispered to Hans. They were funny ones at that. Many an occasion the Europeans had burst out in laughter.
‘There promiscuous, these Japanese’, Hans thought to himself; ‘more so than anything back home’. The tavern was getting crowded, the owners and their family rushed back and forth to deliver jugs of sake and food to people. Hans had helped himself to some, the dumplings were delicious, some had sweetened meat in them and others took shape of doughy delicacies. More people walked in, it must have been a busy time of week. Most men looked alike like Hans saw earlier, and robes; everyone wore robes here (apart from the few Portuguese who were unmistakably dressed like Hans and Himmel, or priests who were hooded most of the time as they made their way to the large cream church). Hans felt like he stood out, though unlike earlier people didn’t take much notice of him now. To them, he was just another foreigner from a land they had never visited. One of the officials they were with gulped their drink and suddenly fell back, crashing into a taller man with frizzy hair. Then, there was commotion. After a brief conversation, the barking got louder and increased as both men began to feverently argue.
“What’s going on?” Han’s said.
“The man’s honour’s been infringed on, our new friend spilled sake on him and he wants compensation; it’s not happening”. Suddenly, the man looked at Hans and Himmel. He barked a few sounds from his mouth but both stayed unmoved.
“I don’t think he likes either of you”, said one of the Japanese men they were sitting with.
“Why is that?”, queried Himmel in Spanish.
“He says you’re a foreign devil”.
“Tell him we’ve done nothing to wrong him, his friend did that”, Hans said to Himmel who relayed it back to the red nosed man who was clearly intoxicated. Himmel replied.
“He says you are a great liar and you will be hurt for your lies and dishonour”. The tavern abruptly went silent, everyone was starring at what was going on. The man barked some more inaudible words at Himmel before shouting in a fit of rage. Himmel reached for his cutlass but Hans stopped him.
“I’ll take care of this one”. Hans got up but before he could take action, the samurai had flipped the small table.
“Shi ga matte iru!”, the man yelled, drawing his sword while pushing his hips back to fasten the draw. Hans had no problem where this was going. He drew his longsword. The samurai assumed a stance, widening his feet and lowering the blade to his waist, holding the grip with both hands; the blade directed towards Hans. Hans stepped his right foot forward, also widening his stance and carried the weight on his front foot, with his blade slightly extended. Both paused, gauging each other’s reactions. The Samurai was the first to act. He flicked the sword upwards as a feint, causing Hans to engage with a block, before swinging down. Hans quickly hoped back while parrying the blow downwards. Accidently, his leg hit the chair behind and nearly tripped but managed to regain composure before his opponent could do anything. Again, there was a lull; shouting sounded in the background. Everyone hung to their swords, not sure what was about to happen. The samurai switch his stance to an upper one, holding the grip next to this face and grounding himself again. Hans assumed the same footwork as before, this time putting the weight on his back foot, now the left. The samurai came at him again, slicing down with a downward blow. Hans parried the blade to the right and stepped in with the right. Pushing the sword aside, he closed in quickly and thrusted the man’s chest. The blade went through and with some struggle, he withdrew it. The man dropped instantly, laying on the floor dead.
“You thrusted him?” Himmel shouted above the murmuring in the room.
“We’re not in fucking Christendom anymore, Himmel!”, Hans shouted back.
Shock dawned on most faces, anger grew on a few others. As instant as the now corpse hit the floor, several men drew their swords. Himmel arose, drawing his cutlass with his right hand. Nevertheless, three of the men on the opposite side of the room went for Hans. Not wanting to be cornered Hans fled out of the building, barging through several people. They may have threatened him but holding a weapon and being pursued, no one was stupid enough to draw on him. Running to the open street, Hans made sure to move about; the last thing he wanted to be cornered. All three warriors sprinted after him, taking similar stances to the samurai he just killed. Han’s weighted himself equally on both feet. All three rushed to attack him. From holding the sword behind, he swung the blade around, making sure to create wide arcs in the air and a semi-circle of defence. All three backed away, unsure of what to do. Hans made sure to keep swinging, deterring anyone who dared come any closer. The moment one warrior tried to flank him, he backed away pivoting both his feet and swinging his blade. Gradually his arms began to feel weighted as the adrenaline decreased, this couldn’t last forever. Suddenly, one of the warriors was struck through the neck with a clean swing before being thrusted through the back. The man screamed in agony as he fell to the ground; unsure of whether to clutch his back or neck. His cry became more silent as he gargled blood. Distracted, both men acted indecisive; one faced Himmel, the other switching between both men. This convenient distraction provided an opening, Hans rushed to the switching man. The man, noticing Hans, pointed his sword at him. Hans sidestepped to the right, sliding his sword on his opponents and in the bind whined the blade over his opponents, pushing it to the right as it stepped to the left. Flicking the blade aside, he swung sword upwards and landed a clean cut to the head; whether dead or alive, the man fell. Realising he was outnumbered, the final person left fled. No person dared approach either survivor.
“You okay?”, Himmel said to Hans after wiping his blade with the fallen man’s robe.
“You told me to keep my head down”.
“Told you they didn’t like foreigners”, Hans wondered if the pay had been worth it but before he could, Himmel directed him elsewhere.
“I know an inn we can stay in until this blows over”.
“You better be right since you lied about this”.
“What are you talking about, I saved your ass”.
“Thank god”. Both men laughed and walked down the street, making sure to holster their weapons while they did so. A few people had gathered around since the event had garnered attention but took the role of passive observers, no one dared to do anything.
The garden was as calm as the temperament of the person tending to it. He paced in a tempered and modest manner, making sure to relish and embrace each fleeting moment while he cut the branches of a small blossom tree. This one was particular and the difference stood out in an elegant manner. Surrounded by a hunching of pink, it stood clear white in conjunction with the other plants, some green, some red. This one particularly had value. Katsumoto never treated this one any differently. In a universe where all was bliss, and oxymoronically all was suffering, he saw the plant for what it was, an extension of the universe itself. Like everything else, it expressed itself in its own way just as someone may wave to him to show attention. It gave him joy, though not an outward one. It was a steady joy like a calm stream on the mountainside near Ryokan. Calm, unteathered, grown but not controlled; an undisputed expression of itself in the most magnificent and contradictory way. Controlled spontaneity, ordered spirit, the body full of life. Even in this very fleeting moment, above the voices of the two men speaking to him, it spoke to him more than the loudest words ever could. He listened patiently and headed their words but made sure to savour what he was doing at the same time. Such is a task that could not be done otherwise if a person was still distracted by the memories of the past, or the prospect of the future. Still he tended to the blossom tree, kneeling as he did, a sombre look on his face; paying attention to the fat man as he blabbered on.
“-and you see, nothing has been done yet. Why hasn’t anything been done yet? We’ve given you two months to kill this foreigner and he still walks around Nagasaki. He killed two of my best men and a son of a wealthy man. The Lord’s decided to do nothing and we’ve paid you in full, wh-”
“You must be calm, you lack composure. It is an easy way to get stressed”. The fat, bald headed, gentleman staggered slightly back from the response. Clearly he wasn’t used to getting hard feedback, either that or he was easily angered. In whichever case, he didn’t quieten but stepped forwards.
“Get stressed? Why I-”
“Reo, cut it out.”, said the taller man sternly. Immediately, the man stepped back in silence in a manner that suggested he was supported.
“He has some good points, we’ve waited too long and some people in Nagasaki are begging for his blood. Why haven’t you done anything? Have you become too soft? Or perhaps too homely? There’s no reason why this waiting has gone on for more than it has”.
Katsumoto still sombre, still tended to his blossom tree, kneeling, unabashed. A lanky fellow, he bore a slightly bony face which suited his middle age. In this gaunt face was calculated determination and it was obvious he was not privy to innocence. Like most men, his hair was bunned in an island of baldness as was the fashion of the time and he wore clean cream robes with no decoration whatsoever.
“Those two months have not been in vain, my friend. In that time, I have been gathering information about these foreigners. All sorts of news spread around Nagasaki and this has enabled me to animate the fellow I am going to dispose of”. The fat man began talking again.
“But two months? This is absurd, this would never happen in any other circumstance”.
“This is not any other circumstance. A man, well trained in the art of combat with his accomplice, make their way to Nagasaki and kill three retainers. No one’s seen his type of sword before or anything like it. This is an exemplary case and requires attention. To know one’s enemy is to defeat him and I intend to do that”. The calm man responded. Two months had been productive. He had sent spies, listened to witnesses and even gazed at both men himself in disguised.
“And how do you intend to do that?”
“By speaking to him”.
It had been two months in this city and already it was getting on Han’s nerves. There had been delays from the customs officers in using the products and so they had been put in storage to be seen in the future, and under the grip of the local lord. They hadn’t been paid quite yet but were given accommodation and privileges for food which was good enough in any case. Both Hans and Himmel spoke in the dining area, sitting while their legs were crossed. None of them could kneel for long periods of time like the locals so they made due with sitting the way they usually did. Everything was plain and minimalist, there was nothing ordained and in a way it was peaceful. In another it was devolved of any imagination, Hans found the paradox irritating but slightly amusing.
“Any word on what’s going on?”, Hans said.
“Nothing yet, they’re adamant on waiting at the moment before they send the arms east. Apart from that, there’s little to say”. Suddenly, there was knock on the door.
“Are you expecting someone, Himmel?”
Both got up and went to the front. Opening the door they saw a tall and slender man, slightly withered and middle aged.
“…….Can I help you”.
“You can. My name is Katsumoto Yamamore and I have been hired to deal with matters pertaining to both of you”.
“I was uninformed of any meetings with any officials today”.
“Oh no, I am not any official; though I have been hired. I am here to see a gentleman called Hans”. Un-used to saying the name, there was a strong emphasis on the pronunciation “a” which cut off artificially short.
“That is me”, Hans replied. “And what can I do for you?”
“That is a very good question, I have been assigned for special matters concerning you from some very important people in Nagasaki”. A look of confusion resounded on Han’s face as he looked at Himmel. His tall friend stared back with an equal expression.
“To kill you”.
Chapter 2 – Conversing
Both Hans and Himmel paused and stared in silence, unsure what to do with the placid looking man who still yet gracefully sipped his tea with both hands, one supporting from the bottom and the other from the side. The reaction had been both out of surprise and inconvenience, both weren’t armed. It was likely the man, if he was as skilled as he was with his sword, would cut both of them down before they could gang up on him long before he was able to do anything. Still he sipped his tea, seemly unaware of the tension he had caused. He lowered the cup onto the table slowly and elegantly.
“Do not worry, I have not come to enact this now”
“Then what have you come for?”, Hans replied. There was a weariness evident in his voice but he tried to keep composure.
“To talk to you”, the man simply replied. There was a pause in the air as both men struggled to find words to say, he spoke again.
“Would you be so kind as to let me speak with Hans alone?”, the man was calm in his voice but decisive, as if he could fell a tree with such words.
“And how do I know you won’t kill him when you’re gone?” It was a legitimate question, only the man kneeling down possessed a weapon.
“If I wanted to kill you both, I would have done it by now but I have let things pass and by my honour have come to speak to you. Please, give me this honour in return”.
Reluctantly, Hans said “fine” and as hesitantly Himmel left to another room. Now it was just both of them.
“So if you have not come to kill me yet, how may I help you?”, Hans asked with a lull of weariness in his voice.
“Do you know who I am?”, the man asked without any such weariness in his voice.
“My name is Katsumoto Furukawa, I am a hitman”.
“Hmmm, a man who kills for money”.
“It is an occupation”, Katsumoto took another sip with a savouring pace.
“So if that is the case, why haven’t you killed me yet?”
“Indeed, most people may have but from what I have been told I had to meet you in person. Such is an honour where I am from”. Curiously, Hans inquired.
“Because as well as a hitman, people consider me a skilled swordsman with the school I am from and the teacher I trained under. To meet a fellow swordsman as skilled who has conducted himself with such deeds is an honour a rare few will ever experience”.
“If you say so…”, there was another pause. Katsumoto broke the silence.
“From what I have heard ‘Hans’, you have built quite a reputation for yourself. You slew three samurai”.
“Two, Himmel killed one of them as well”.
“I see, still it is quite a feat to slay a numerically superior force. Especially, if one of them was favoured by the local lord. It is something I am quite happy about”.
“Yes, to meet such a person is a personal honour for me. The lord and his advisors pleaded for me to kill you, they even paid me a money”.
“…. how much?”.
“A lot”. Katsumoto continued.
“But I refused, both times. To me killing someone, especially a foreigner wasn’t worth the blood on my sword. However, when I heard what you had done and with such cunning and skill, I finally decided to do so but on the condition that I met you and saw who my opponent would be”.
“…..that’s very friendly of you”.
“Indeed, it is rare one gets to meet someone who they can say are what we call a worthy opponent. One may look for one their entire lives and their life would not be wasted. I have killed many men; many stupid, foolish, men. Men who could not pay their debts, men who got involved in affairs that were too much for them, men who simply wanted to fight. It is rare I find someone who gauges my interest so. Please, would it be possible for you to sit with me and converse?”. Katsumoto read Han’s body.
“You don’t do this where you are from?”, Katusmoto inquired.
“We have respectable enemies but where I’m from, if you want to kill someone you do it. There’s no such etiquette in being an assassin”.
“Yes, well we are not where you are from”. Hans sat opposite, cross legged. Katsumoto offered some tea, Hans accepted and sipped it slowly as not to burn his mouth.
“Tell me, have you heard of a man named Miyamoto Musashi?”
“I have not”.
“You would like him. He is a master swordsman, probably one of the greatest who ever lived. It is said he killed an opponent when he was thirteen armed simply with a stick. When he grew older, many schools became jealous of him and ambushed him. He was such a skilled fighter that he took on multiple opponents, killing many of them before causing the others to flee”. A grin grew on Hans’ face.
“Oh, so you know this story?”
“Nosimila, but it reminds me of someone I have heard about. In a place called Italy, there was a man called Fiore Fernando De Liberi. They say he was so skilled in his arts that he killed five men, all who wanted to kill him because he refused to teach them. In many ways, I would have liked to have met him just to see the kind of person he was”. Katsumoto also grinned.
“He sounds like quite the warrior”.
“I could say the same for yours as well”, at that moment both chuckled.
“May I see your sword?”, Katsumoto asked.
“Only if I get to see yours”, replied Hans.
“Indeed, I wouldn’t expect otherwise. I’ve heard about this sword, no one has seen anything like it here”. He drew the holstered sword from his belt and put in on the table with elegant calm.
“I could say the same for yours as well. Give me a moment, I will go and get it”.
Hans left and after a few moments returned with it.
“Ah, so this is the sword I’ve been told about constantly. It’s one of the reasons why I came as well. The descriptions were right”.
Hans gave Katsumoto the sword and in return he held out the sword with both hands. Hans, once seated, immediately drew the sword from its scabbard.
“Interesting, it’s a very slender thing with a slight bend. Good hatchet point, it’s like the sabres we have at home”. Katsumoto scanned the scabbard, hilt and pommel before slowly drawing the sword.
“This is a remarkable piece of metallurgy if I say so myself”.
“Thank you, it was my father’s and it was a gift”.
“Are all swords like this where you are from?”
“They used to be, people don’t use them much anymore. I’m one of the last in my city to carry such a two-handed blade”.
“Oh”, simply replied Katsumoto, dumb struck with the response.
“Where I am from, such a level of detail would be highly revered. I don’t know who made your sword but if they were working here, these types of swords would never go out of fashion”.
“That’s why I kept it, my colleague keeps a cutlass but it isn’t anything like this one”.
“Cut-lass?”, Katsumoto replied.
“Here, I’ll show you”. Leaving again, he came back with the weapon, it’s basic look not comparing to the elegant longsword.
“It seems a little odd if I may say so, it’s like a long knife”.
“You’re certainly not wrong”, Hans chuckled as he said the phrase, “Most people wear these now in Europe”.
“A fine skill wasted”, the hitman muttered to himself. He held the cutlass for a while and felt how it handled in his hand before sheathing it. After giving a final look to the longsword, he also gave it back. Hans in turn, gave back the katana.
“I guess one could cut fish with it very well”, Katsumoto said. Breaking the silence, Hans was taken about by the sudden comment and instinctively began chuckling. Katsumoto chuckled back, his wit clearly accomplished.
The conversation drew on for hours as both men got to know each other and after tea, came sake. More was drunk as both men got to know each other. Both spoke about countries and both marvelled at what was each other. Katsumoto marveled at Han’s descriptions of the Empire and this large cities with walls. Parallel, Hans marveled at stories of fields of trees that produced pink blossoms; the concept was alien to him. No subject was left off the table as both men became more and more drunk.
“So, who do you worship then?”, Han’s said, his face pinkish.
“Me? Why me and my people worship our ancestors. I’ve read about your God, I’m not impressed if I’m honest”.
“Why not? How can you worship your ancestors when they don’t help you? All you do is worship dead men”.
“And how can you trust one god to do everything? And if this god of yours is so powerful, why does he not come and help you stop all the wars in your land?”
“He gave us choice to solve our own problems”.
“Bah, rubbish! My ancestors would beat your god in any case!”
Both starred at each other and then began howling in laughter.
“Hans you are a good man and an honourable one”, he exhaled a sigh.”It is a shame I must kill you”. The atmosphere calmed and the mood settled as both men realised the reality they faced, their positions in society and customs making them conform to such a world.
“Where am I to fight you?”
“Where is convenient for you?”. Hans looked up in thought.
“Hmm, I always enjoy fighting in an open plain”.
“Then that’s what shall happen, shall we say midday? Tomorrow?”.
“That sounds good. If it had been any other way, we would have been friends, good companions even”. Katsumoto nodded in agreement, the feeling close to his heart as well.
“Maybe, I’m sure we would have. There is an area on the outskirts of Nagasaki that is perfect. It is a flat plain on the backdrop of a forest where no one will bother us. I think it’s perfect. I’m sorry, I’m afraid I must go now. Thank you for the drink”.
“The pleasure was all mine, thank you Katsumoto”. With a solemn bow, Katsumoto left. While leaving, Katsumoto bumped into Himmel. With another bow he gave thanks and exited.
“I see you both got on”.
“He’s a fascinating man. It’s a shame he still wants to kill me”.
“Would you like me to come along?”.
“No, it’ll be fine. He’s an honourable gentleman”.
“That’s fine, I will come and watch.
Chapter 3 – The Duel
It was as Katsumoto had said, the area was a wide plain on the outskirts of the city. A flat plain and with the backdrop of a forest, Hans and Himmel arrived. Waiting for them was a small party with Katsumoto at the front. He wore different robes to the cream ones he wore on his visit. A blue-ish tunic covered with a black overall, he seemed identical to the others around him who wore similar attire. As soon as they were in distance, Katsumoto called out.
“Ah, there you are and I see you have bought your friend”.
“And I see you have bought yours, Katsumoto”. A few men were behind him, all serious and dead faced”.
“These were the people who paid me to kill you and they have come to watch the duel”.
“That is fine by me”, Hans simply replied. There was a silence as Hans was not sure about what to do next.
“Shall we begin then?”
“Let’s”. Both Hans and Katsumoto walked forwards, l approaching each other until they were two arms lengths apart.
“It’s a shame this has to happen. You would have been a good friend but now what needs to be done must be done”.
“I agree”. Katsumoto gave a final grin, straightened up and bowed. Unsure what to do, Han’s also bowed as well. In a fleeting moment, the grin had disappeared from Katsumoto’s face, though it was still light. Han’s drew his sword and, putting his left foot in front of the other, held his blade down to the ground. Katsumoto gripped his sword in his scabbard with one hand, the other on the scabbard, and slightly bent at the knees. With a slight nod from Katsumoto, the duel began. Han’s walked forwards cautiously, making sure to keep composure, the sword in the same position as it was when he was still. The hitman stood still, silent, before taking a few half steps forwards; his right leg always forwards. As both approached, there was a silence. Han’s felt Katsumoto’s gaze as he felt the man was reading him. Closer, they drew. Hans calmly baited his sword outwards as he approached forwards, his back pivoting forwards as he did so. Suddenly, the hitman drew his sword out, knocking Han’s blade to the side and ran forwards, his sword sliding against the longsword. As he ran, Han’s quickly stepped back, drawing the blade back as he did so. Suddenly, in the run, Katsumoto slipped and fell to the floor. A few moments passed and Han’s drew back his sword, giving the hitman time to get back up.
“Thank you”, Katsumoto replied.
“Whenever you are ready”, Han’s replied. Katstumoto gave a bow before smirking, the same smirk Hans had seen the night before when they had been drinking. Hans smiled back an in courtesy both straightened themselves out before resuming their stances. Then the smiles disappeared. Katsumoto assumed a high stance, the sword close to the right side of his face, all the time his face looking at Hans. Hans drew his right leg back and turned his body to the side. His sword fell behind him and stabbed behind him to the ground from his leg. Simultaneously, both attacked. Katsumoto fell his sword with a downward stoke struck at Hans. Han’s, immediately bringing the sword forwards, parried it out of the way and thrusted to Katsumoto’s neck. The hitman sidestepped, maintaining contact with the blade and pressed against the blade while falling back. There was a aura of silence. Again, their blades found each other. Katsumoto pushed the blade aside with the flat of his and, moving to an inwards step, thrusted at Han’s face. Immediately Hans threw his grip up, causing Katsumoto’s blade to slide near his cross-guard. Letting go with his right hand, he let his pommel rise, drooping over the hitman’s blade and letting the sword pass. Han’s went to grab his arm with his free hand but, knowing where this was going, Katsumoto also grabbed Han’s free hand. After a brief struggle, which seemed like an eternity to both, Katsumoto landed a knee to Han’s ribs. Han’s wheezed as the air left his body and as he was distracted, in a miniscule measurement of time, Katsumoto freed his blade and bought it down. Instinctively, Han’s thrashed the blade aside with a swipe as he back stepped outwards in somewhat of a leap.
Moments came and moments passed as the intensity died down to a rush of impulses from both sides. Both neared in and out of distance, putting their blades forward to feel the other’s and measure distance. Weary of what the other was capable of, each ventured close feeling their opponent out by their weapon and with each jilt, the other would back away. This struggle continued for some time until both seemed to be a comfortable distance. Han’s started. He feinted with a left and as his opponent went to parry and swung with the right, inverting the blade so the rear would strike the hit man’s head. Taken aback by this surprise, Katsumoto quickly back stepped in the opposite direction, making sure to parry the blow aside, just. Still, that did not stop him. With the parry, he rushed forward swinging the sword forwards. Han’s tried to bring back the sword to strike but Katsumoto stanced low and struck to his stomach, charging forwards as he did so. Immediately, Han’s dropped his blade and side stepped while grabbing the blade at the same time. Another struggle as Han’s attempted to take control of the blade while Katsumoto resisted. With his right hand, he grabbed the hitman’s shoulder, charging in and pivoting his hips against his in an attempt to shoulder throw him. Katusmoto saw this and dropped his sword and as Hans charged into him and turned away, he grabbed Han’s leg and pulled up, causing the German to collapse on the ground. As Hans hit the floor, the hitman drew his short sword, the slight curve emulating the Katana he carried, and lunged after him. Hans held both arms, pushing away Katsumoto who closed in on him with increasing weight and pressure. The sword drew closer to his neck, the pushing intense. There was much gasping and struggling and both pushed too and fro, Han’s trying not to die and Katsumoto trying to seal his fate in sorrow. At that moment, there was no peace in the hearts of men, only basic survival and instinct. All words, concepts and patterns disappeared as both men threw such things away. In the void, Hans could only think one thing: if that thing reaches me, I’m a dead man. In a moment of panic, a chord struck in his mind within the minute of struggle. Using the pressure, he shrimped away to the right and pushed the knife outwards to the left. Then with an instinctual rhythm, he landed a clean head elbow. Katsumoto lunged back, not expecting the blow and in that opening, Hans closed in, levered the man under and grabbed the short sword from his hand. Grabbing the bottom of the handle he pulled it upwards, forcing it to leave Katsumoto’s hand. By the time he had realised what had happened, Hans was on top of him with the knife to his throat. The look he received as a petrified one, naked vulnerability from a man who had tried so hard, had been paid even, to kill him and sever his head from his body. The same person’s life was in the balance, it was the final step of the duel. Everything that had been done, all decisions and strategies and instincts boiled down to this: the choice. It was his and he was at liberty to choose what the outcome would be. But to kill such a skilled man? Who had worked his way and proved himself by action? What this worth taking from, and denying in, the world? Slowly. Hans withdrew the blade and stood up, exhausted.
“You- You’re not going to kill me?”, said Katsumoto unsure about what was going on.
“You’re right, I cannot kill you. The fight is over”. He patted his clothes and Katsumoto went on his knees.
“Please, kill me. You have defeated me, you have proven that you are worthy of defeating me. This is not honour, this is not courage. You must give me this”. He struggled to speak.
“At least give me my sword so I may end my life”.
Hans starred at the man for a second with a glint of some disbelief in his eyes. Katsumoto had told him about the ways of the samurai and the customs of suicide. When the blade entered a man’s gut, he showed that he took action to regain his honour before being beheaded, and righteousness in the world would be reclaimed again.
“My friend, you are an honourable man and have shown that today and it is for that reason why I cannot kill you, I respect you far too much. If I am to kill you, all the skill and arts you have gained would be lost forever, never to show to the world again. That for me is dishonourable, which is why I must let you live”. There was silence, cold-dead silence that was only put off by the sound of the wind and the breeze which shuffled the trees. Witnesses looked with solemn on their faces.
“If there was no honour, it has now been returned. That is my decision”. Putting out a hand, Hans lifted Katsumoto up to standing and handed him his short sword.
“For you”, he handed the weapon, the handle facing towards Katsumoto, with a bow. Katsumoto paused for a moment and instinctively returned it. Everyone else gazed, silent and dumbstruck, at what had happened.