Tetsuya, a young male courtesan, is living a life of relative safety until an unknown samurai called Jin arrives on his doorstep, bringing passion and death. Awakened to the strange paths of destiny, Tetsuya chooses to leave the only place he has ever known to follow a samurai who is on a quest for vengeance. Their heels dogged at every turn by paid assassins, Tetsuya and Jin learn to trust each other as they discover hidden truths which may get them killed before their love has a chance to redeem them both.
The age of the samurai was dawning, an era which would prove both devastating in its warring clashes and unimaginable in its rush to enlightenment. Beauty and hardship existed hand in hand, woven into the tapestry of life trapped between snow-capped mountains and the restlessly foaming sea. Fishermen lived at the coast where they eked out a living tied to the sea; a hard life at best. Farmers lived in the countryside where they toiled away at the earth; an even more transitory existence lived at the whims of the weather and the will of their feudal lords. The peasants suffered the most hardship, owning little property, having no voice, caught in a life of endless drudgery.
In such a constant swirl of change, a young man called Tetsuya Matsuyama went about his life, trying to fit into a world that barely noticed his existence. Tetsuya lived and worked at a popular inn near the edge of a burgeoning town, just across from the upper river bridge. There were certainly worse jobs than working at an inn, and Tetsuya considered himself lucky to have found his way there at all. It was a roof over his head, food in his stomach, and it afforded someone like him more than would otherwise have been achievable in the reality of a rigid class structure and the hard life endured by most villagers.
For the most part the people of the village were hardworking, decent citizens that did not hold Tetsuya's occupation to be anything of concern. They smiled when he spent his money and chatted with him about the local gossip as he did his shopping; money was money after all, however you happened to come about it. The fact that the town boasted several gaming houses was proof of that. There was always a profit to be made from travelers, no matter how unsavory the character. Tetsuya was just another face in a crowd that changed as the weather, a multitude of nameless passersby going to and fro down the roads that cut through town on the way to somewhere, and nowhere.
Located on a major crossroad, the town was usually busy and that morning was little different. The sun was doing its best to break through the heavy clouds of the day before, the lingering ground fog having retreated to the edges of the riverbed as people went about their daily business. Smoke from cooking fires rose into the chilly air. Brightly colored kimonos and dull drab homespun filled the streets to the background of children playing and people talking. The fresh air was filled with the sounds of commerce, the smell of cooking food and the chattering of housewives.
That morning the chill of the coming winter was cutting through Tetsuya's kimono and robe as he made his way about the market. He took time to gossip with the vendors, sipping hot sweet tea and laughing at their always exaggerated stories. Some of the women felt fondly toward him and snuck him little snacks when their husbands or fathers were not looking. Others were not so friendly as he walked by, looking down their respectable noses as he inspected their wares. They might be too proud to speak to Tetsuya, but they were never too good to take his money.
It would perhaps surprise them to know how many of their fathers or husbands or brothers had been out to the inn and parted with some of their hard-earned wages, the coins with which Tetsuya was now paying for the food or goods he purchased. He would have found it ironic if he did not find it so sad. To be sure he was only one of many trying to earn a living by whatever means necessary. The town was more prosperous than most simply from its location, yet times were hard for anyone who was not a skilled laborer or a member of the elite.
Tetsuya made a living on his looks and his skills as a courtesan well versed in the art of sexual pleasure. He lived and worked at a respectable inn just at the edge of a local hot springs where the higher class of traveler usually chose to rest. More than one of the village elite would be appalled to discover how much time and money was wiled away in such a place by their spoiled and worthless male offspring. As a man in the subtle, secret world of clandestine trysts and whispered words, of silk and skin and touch, Tetsuya was afforded the luxury of choice in who he allowed into his bed. Whoever sought him out knew that their secret would remain within the private walls of the inn and the shadowy veil of his dark eyes.
As he had grown older, Tetsuya's face took on a more refined quality that his lovers called beautiful. He had wide dark eyes surrounded by long thick lashes, a straight nose somewhat snubbed at the end, shapely lips and sleek black hair that fell straight and long to his slim hips. His build was slight and his skin as pale as any of the elite class. He could easily pass for a woman, especially with his hair arranged or his eyes painted with the dark liner that some of his clients preferred. Given the choice, Tetsuya preferred to be a man, and as a man he walked with his head up and shoulders straight. The men he accepted as lovers did the same, more than appreciative of his soft white skin and the firm muscles beneath.
In any case, Tetsuya was accepted for the expensive courtesan that he was, and while that did not always afford him respect, it offered him freedom that others in his situation might not enjoy. Today he was slower than usual accomplishing the marketing, easily sidetracked by brightly colored ribbons and morsels of sweet rice cakes as he wound his way past the sales stalls. Finished with errands at last, he and his accompanying servant made their way down a side street toward the main road that would take them back to the inn.
Tetsuya walked along in a half daze daydreaming about other things, when he was suddenly assaulted by a shrill scream that startled him out of his reverie. He looked up to see a huge burly man chasing a young girl into a corner between a building and an ox cart, grabbing her by the arm and trying to drag her away. She screamed again and the man struck her across the face with a blow hard enough to stun her into silence.
Tetsuya glanced around, outraged at seeing the assault and no one in the immediate area of the street coming to the girl's aid. Although Tetsuya was standing in plain view, the menacing hulk ignored him, dragging the girl out from the shadows as she whimpered and cried. He was a large man, obviously drunk and dangerous, but Tetsuya flung himself headlong into the middle of what should not have concerned him. This kind of thing happened all the time in the world in which he lived, but something about this girl's wide innocent eyes cut into his heart.
"Leave her alone!" Tetsuya shouted.
The man proceeded to drag the silent girl directly past Tetsuya. Ignoring his own safety and common sense, Tetsuya grabbed the heavy basket from his shivering servant and threw it at the man's head. His young companion shrieked and ran away. Struck by the unwieldy item, the thug released the poor girl, who staggered forward and collapsed in the dirt as vegetables rained down around them.
"Hurry, get out of here!" Tetsuya urged, yanking the girl to her feet and giving her a push down the street.
The man's black rage was now centered solely upon him, and had Tetsuya seen the samurai swords at the man's waist earlier, he might not have felt so brave. The girl scrambled away as Tetsuya turned to face whatever was coming next. His breath whooshed out when the man punched him hard in the stomach, knocking Tetsuya to the ground. Stars swirled before his eyes.
Struggling to breathe, he could hear the loud pounding of his heart in his ears and looked up to see the samurai draw a sword, his face a mask of pure hatred. There was nowhere for him to run, nothing Tetsuya could do to protect himself. He closed his eyes so that he would not have to see the killing blow descend into his flesh. Instead of the sharp burning cut of death, the sound of metal on metal rang in his ears.
Tetsuya's eyes flew open with shock and disbelief, his sight almost totally blocked by the body of another man standing over him with sword drawn. Lying on his back in the street, Tetsuya stared up at wide shoulders while his rescuer sheathed his sword with a nonchalance that bordered on recklessness.
Tetsuya's attacker sat on the ground a few yards away with his sword still in his hand and a look of blind fury on his heavy features. Tetsuya rolled to his knees behind the intervening samurai but could not yet get to his feet, lungs still gasping for air.
"You sicken me," his protector addressed the other man in a calm voice. "A warrior should never draw his sword to strike an unarmed opponent."
With a roar the drunken samurai scrambled to his feet and charged at them, his sword high in the air. Tetsuya cringed in terror but the clash of swords did not materialize. Instead the man standing over him simply moved forward, and with one fluid motion thwarted the attacker's sword swing by catching his arm and using the man's momentum against him. Tumbling head over heels, the drunken samurai hit the ground hard on his side. The second man merely turned to face the fallen drunk.
"Think about it," he cautioned in a smooth, level voice.
The drunken man got to his feet, the sword no longer so steady in his hand. Tetsuya could now see the face of the man standing over him, a face free of expression or concern, the icy regard of a true samurai who had such confidence in his own skill with a sword that he rarely had to draw it in an argument. An aura of steady coolness radiated from him like a wave of energy, now affecting even the drunken fool whom Tetsuya knew was hanging onto life by a thread.
"Who are you to interfere?" the bully demanded in a slurred voice filled with hate. "What does it matter, the life of one peasant, more or less?"
"All life matters, even yours," the samurai answered. "When you draw your sword you should be ready to die. Are you then ready?"
The man was thinking it over now. Tetsuya could see the rudimentary thought process in his sweaty face. He was thinking that he was drunk, that this new stranger was beyond his skill, and that maybe the interfering boy was not worth his time after all. His angry black eyes stared down at Tetsuya as if that alone would do him damage.
"If I am not incentive enough for you to reconsider, then maybe something else will persuade you," the tall samurai said casually. "I wonder if the Tamaguchi clan would like to know how it was that you won those last three wagers in the gaming hall. They take their business very seriously."
The drunken man actually blanched white upon hearing that statement, the rage that had built him up now shrinking into his body until he seemed a much smaller man than at first glance. It was of course an illusion of slumped shoulders and a withering spirit. Still, he had the rude disposition to spit on the ground at his feet.
"I'll remember you," he said, his threat encompassing the two men in the street.
Then he was gone, staggering off down the street and disappearing into yet another tavern. A few other people who had gathered to witness the confrontation also vanished as quietly as they had appeared, not a single one of them caring about the outcome in one way or the other.
Still kneeling on the ground, Tetsuya was staring down the empty street when the shadow of the samurai who had come to his rescue blocked the sun from his face. He looked up in silence as the samurai reached out a hand to help him to his feet.
"Are you all right?" the man asked.
Tetsuya nodded stupidly, allowing the man to lift him to his feet. The samurai brushed the dust from Tetsuya's kimono and then released him, stepping back to look him over, realizing that Tetsuya was not a woman as he had first thought. It was an easy enough mistake; Tetsuya's long hair was pulled back with a ribbon and he had hardly been a great help at defending himself.
Tetsuya looked directly into the samurai's eyes for the first time, finally managing to swallow the lump in his throat. His eyes were a smoky topaz color, unusual and directâ€”and they were silently laughing.
"Next time, have a plan in mind before you do something like that," he suggested.
Tetsuya beat the dust out of his sleeve. "I had a plan. It just didn't work out so well."
The samurai looked down at the basket and the vegetables scattered around them in the dirt. "I never thought of using carrots as a weapon."
Is he making fun of me? Tetsuya could not tell from his voice. "If I had been carrying firewood it might have been different," Tetsuya said.
Again those mesmerizing eyes looked at him in measured silence. Not one to disregard the saving of his life or the difference between their classes, Tetsuya brought his hands together in front of his face and bowed at the waist to give the respect and gratitude that was due.
"I thank you for my worthless life, great warrior. I apologize for any inconvenience my lack of consideration may have caused for you this morning. May the remains of your day be untroubled."
Having said that and with his servant nowhere in sight, Tetsuya crouched down to retrieve what was salvageable from the dumping and stomping of the morning's market purchase. At least the paper-wrapped packages of tea and herbs were intact and most of the vegetables unscathed. He supposed he should consider himself lucky that he had not chosen eggs. The few silk ribbons were dirty, but like the vegetables could be easily washed.
To Tetsuya's complete surprise the samurai also bent down and began gathering up the scattered belongings. This caught Tetsuya totally off guard, as most of the samurai he had experience with would hardly have bothered saving his life, much less offering to help with such a mundane chore. The samurai dumped a handful of carrots into the basket.
"Did you really catch him cheating?" Tetsuya asked, dumping in his own handful of eggplant. To his amazement the samurai smiled.
"I imagine he is not clever enough to cheat, but he hasâ€¦an arrangement with one of the dealers. I watched them several times."
"And you let him get away with it?"
"It's a gaming house," he said, as if that should explain it. "If they cannot police their own, who am I to do it for them?"
Tetsuya had to laugh in spite of himself and the samurai did the same. As they continued gathering the items, Tetsuya caught the samurai scanning his slim form and fairly expensive clothing. He wondered what the samurai was thinking; the fact that he was still there let Tetsuya know he was interested in what he saw. He smiled lightly to himself at that unknowing revelation.
"You do not look the type to be hauling vegetables," the man said at last.
"My servant ran off. It seems he is the smarter of the two of us. I work at the inn by the hot springs just outside of town."
"Aah," he said in a knowing voice.
For some reason at that moment, from that man, that tone of insolence annoyed Tetsuya. Snatching at the last remaining onion, his hand closed over it at the same time as the samurai's, their fingers brushing together. When the man did not take his hand away, Tetsuya looked up. For the second time the expression on the face of his rescuer stilled Tetsuya's breath. He slowly moved his hand.
"Can you manage this on your own?" the man asked.
Annoyed all over again that the samurai thought him so helpless, Tetsuya stood up in a huff. "I have been managing on my own my whole life," he shot back, dropping the onion into the basket at his feet. "Thank you for your help."
Tetsuya picked up the basket and turned to go. The samurai allowed him to take five steps before he called out from where he stood, unmoving, in the middle of the street.
"Are you cooking those poor things to feed to your guests tonight?"
Tetsuya replied without turning. "The cook will wash the dirt off first."
Behind him, Tetsuya heard the samurai laughing quietly to himself. He stomped off down the road toward the bridge, aware of smoky eyes boring a hole in his back until long after he had crossed out of sight. Tetsuya did not know what to make of such an unusual encounter. The man was just a traveling samurai, one of many faces that he would probably never see again.
Still, he wondered who the man was and why his heart had jumped at the touch of the samurai's warm fingers on his cold hand.