When an unknown man is shot, then stabbed to death on the road between Morijuku and the village of Iwagi, it is natural to assume that he fell victim to bandits preying on travelers passing through the Kiso Mountains. But when Daikawa Tadashi, a samurai from a poor, but ancient noble house, encounters the body, he realizes that there is likely more to the tale than a simple robbery.
And when Tadashi’s attempt to dutifully report the murder to one of his daimyo’s lieutenants unexpectedly results in a second murder, he finds himself, and worse, his lover, ensnared in a dangerous web of deceit and death. For clan war looms over the mountains, the Tiger of Kai, the lord of the Takeda, is on the prowl, and shinobi stalk the shadows of the night.
SIX EXPRESSIONS OF DEATH is Mojo Mori’s debut novel. A historical murder mystery set in a mystical version of 16th century Japan, it is a unique and enthralling tale. Available in Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
Morijuku was not a large town, and a minute’s walk brought him to the house of Baisetsu. It stood as dark and silent as the carpenter’s shop beside it, causing Tadashi to wonder momentarily if he was mistaken. Then his glance detected a dark shape huddled by the covered walkway fronting on the street. Beholding that awkward shape, which could only be a corpse, he knew that he guessed correctly, and death was stalking very near.
He stood for a moment to survey Baisetsu’s house, a larger dwelling than his own and far more spacious than Akiko’s. A roofed walkway fronted on the street, with the house’s main door at its center and windows to either side. A narrow gravel path ran along the nearer side of the house, leading to a large formal garden behind it.
Tadashi groped in his memory for details of the building’s layout, recalling how a second covered walkway fronted on the garden, with two additional doors giving access to the interior on that side. The low structure included just one story despite its size, but a large number of windows pierced its walls. Three servants usually lived in the house alongside Baisetsu’s wife and children. Tonight, however, every window showed dark and empty, giving no sign of life inside.
Silently, Tadashi slipped off his geta, or wooden clogs, and set them close against the wall of the carpenter’s shop where he would not stumble on them were he forced to retreat in that direction. Then, drawing his katana, he glided forward with all the stealth he could muster, with both his mind and his body poised for instant action.
The samurai paused only momentarily near the shape by the walkway, long enough to reach out a hand and feel cloth, with the yielding firmness of flesh underneath it—flesh which failed to stir as his hand pressed it. Tadashi noted that warmth still remained in the corpse. He rose and stepped up onto the covered walkway, breathing as quietly as he could. His heart thundered in his ears, but his mind filled with a poised calm like the razor serenity of a sword-blade.
It was dark on the walkway, and the main door into Baisetsu’s house was a gaping blur of even deeper shadow. Tadashi stood considering for a moment. A thin, cold sensation of menace crept along his back looking at the yawning door, like the legs of ghostly insects crawling on his skin.
Baisetsu’s wife and servants are probably already dead, he thought. If Yuukai is alone, he is likely searching for information about who else knows of his crimes. If he has a companion, though, then surely the front door is watched. I will be clearly silhouetted against the street as I enter and easily killed. The killers probably left it open as a trap.
Tadashi stepped off the covered walkway onto the gravel path and moved around the house towards the back. An early firefly glinted among the leaves ahead, then blinked out as the man approached. The dog barked again, from the far side of the town. Then, a prolonged, muffled scraping sound issued from somewhere inside the house, followed by utter silence.
They are indeed still here! Tadashi thought. He approached the second gallery overlooking the garden and stepped up onto it. Unless Yuukai had brought a large band of men, they could not watch every entrance. He looked out over the garden, but it appeared still and peaceful in the moonlight, displaying the asymmetrical perfection of a well-tended formal garden. Moving along the gallery noiselessly, Tadashi found a half-opened door and slipped inside, katana held out before him. In the total darkness inside, he pressed himself to the wall, pausing to listen.
Tadashi heard nothing, but a faint gleam of light appeared suddenly deeper in the house, dimly showing the walls of the corridor he stood in and several dark openings where someone had slid open the panels leading into rooms.
He also saw a severed human head, as he guessed from its shape, lying perhaps two paces from where he stood, surrounded by dark streaks on the pale tatami. The samurai felt anger at the sight of it, but not surprise, since he expected everyone in the house except Yuukai and his confederates to be dead in any case.
Then the faint gleam went out, leaving the samurai in complete darkness once more.
There is Yuukai, searching with a small lamp, Tadashi thought.
He was about to step out into the corridor and move deeper into the house when the door onto the garden behind him swung open soundlessly, grazing his left elbow. Even Tadashi’s iron nerves scarcely kept him from crying out in surprise. His head whipped around. He saw a man’s shape flit in through the doorway, silhouetted for a moment against the garden’s dimness. Then Tadashi heard the faint sound of an indrawn breath only inches from his ear.
Tadashi dropped to the floor, hearing the soft whistle of steel just above his head, and lashed out with his own sword. A loud scream exploded from just overhead, and hot liquid showered down on Tadashi’s face and arms. A man fell across the samurai, thrashing, bearing him to the floor with his weight. For a moment the two men grappled in the darkness, hands clawing blindly at each other. Then Tadashi slashed again, feeling his blade cleave through ribs, and the other man’s motions became a spastic jerking. Then there was a long sigh and the weight across Tadashi’s thighs went limp.
The samurai drew himself out from beneath the dead man and rose to a crouch. A soft patter of footfalls sounded from somewhere deeper inside the house, followed by silence. The darkness now appeared absolute, and Tadashi crept quickly along the hallway, one hand extended to feel along the left wall. As he expected, he soon came to a place where a screen stood open, giving ingress to a room, and he slipped through the doorway.
In the pitch blackness of the room, Tadashi drew himself up against the wall just inside the doorway. He swept his sword back and forth several times through the air, first at shoulder height, then at waist height, to assure himself that no assassin lurked within arm’s reach. Then he held his breath, listening.
He detected no sound at all in the house’s profound silence, but the samurai knew that at least one more man waited nearby. He must trick the man into revealing himself, yet do so in a way that would not make Tadashi an easy prey for his foe.
He devised a plan after only a few moments. Moving back into the hallway, Tadashi felt his way to the man he had killed. Searching the corpse quickly, he found a knife hidden beneath the waistband of the man’s hakama. Drawing the blade free, he hurled it down the hallway with all his force, so that it clattered loudly at the further end. Then he ran forward as noiselessly as he could in the same direction, and halted, pressed flat against the wall, halfway between the dead man and the end of the passage.
Tadashi tensed as his ears caught a faint whisper of movement ahead. Then the samurai heard a stealthy footfall just behind him also. Adrenaline exploded through his body as he realized that at least two more assassins prowled the darkened house, and that these men now trapped him between them.