Teruro nodded, “Yes, it is the same man.”
The early afternoon sun streamed into the restaurant through the sliding window and Teruro eyeballed the fourth ronin who was walking towards them. He glanced over at Takeko to see if she had noticed, only to see that she had already eaten all her food. He wondered how someone that small could possibly eat that fast.
“I’m going to see if I can get more food from the kitchen!” Takeko announced as she started to walk away from the table.
“What about the ronin?” Teruro whispered.
“What about them? You don’t need me to take care of those three.” She said over her shoulder
“What about the one walking towards us?”
“He’ll be interesting, but harmless for now,” she concluded before ducking into the kitchen.
Teruro pondered that he had a lot to learn about his new traveling companion when he noticed a fly on his noodles. In fact a number of them were idling above his plate. He frowned and pushed the bamboo plate away while eying the widely smiling ronin who had reached his table and had sat down in front of him.
“I see your clothes have dried…” Teruro said mildly.
“Yup. I’d offer you some fish but we already ate it. Speakin’ of eating- since you aint eating that, dja mind if I do?" the young man inquired, nodding towards the plate of noodles.
Teruro shrugged and pushed the plate of noodles, the dipping sauce, and the bowl of chopped spring onions across the table.
The young man grabbed a pair of chopsticks and plucked the fly off the noodles and then in as many stabs caught four more flies in mid-flight that he put down next to the fly from the noodles in a neat little row on the table. He grinned and put the chopsticks on the table, got another pair and was about to dig in when three consecutive "Hsst!" interrupted him. The scrawny-necked ronin had turned their sly looking, sallow faces towards Teruro’s table.
"Excuse me, I think they want me to go over there." the youth said blandly as he went to join the three ronin at the door with the plate of noodles in one hand and chopstick in the other.
"Well… This is interesting." Teruro thought to himself. Whatever outrage he might have felt at the ronin's impudence had been replaced with curiosity.
Meanwhile the ronin had finished whispering at the young man, who grinned and loudly replied, "Sure I'll tell him!"
The three ronin looked nervous and seemed startled at the sound of the young man's voice.
“You do that… We’ll be waiting outside.” By the time the young man had calmly made his way to Teruro’s table, they had slunk out.
"Those guys want me to tell ya something.”
“Yeah, that they’re offerin’ to entertain you at their campsite and to wine you and dine you too. They say that their low status forbids’em from askin’ ya in person, but they’d “greatly appreciate the honor of entertaining such a noble guest”." the young man said using a funny voice to quote the ronins.
"Why do you think they want me to come out?" Teruro asked mildly.
"I suppose they wanna draw you out to the nearby woods, where they've been campin’ with twenty of their friends, then kill you and finally steal your stuff. In other words, I'd say it's a trap. Though of course, even forty of them wouldn't stand a chance against you." The young man replied evenly, grinning broadly as he cleaned his chopsticks with a handkerchief.
Teruro took a long speculative look at the young man, showing none of the amusement he felt at the idea of those pitiful excuses for ronin killing him. He tried to guess what his intentions were, what he was after, what he was worth. He also took note of the man's grimy black and white training clothes and his unshaven head that clearly said ronin; yet he also took note of his muscular shoulders, his hale complexion, and bright eyes suggested that he was something more than just a ronin.
"Why are you telling me this? Don't you mind betraying your friends?" asked a puzzled Teruro.
"Friends? Oh you thought that... Naah, they were just buying me a drink. As to why I'm telling you this, they said they would get me all the booze I could drink in a night if I delivered their message." The man replied between slurps of noodles.
"Do you know who I am?" Teruro asked suddenly, wondering why the ronin wasn't afraid for his life.
"Sure I do! You're Teruro Magunojo, one of the best swordsmen this side of mount Fuji." the young man replied with an open faced admiring smile and a mouthful of noodles stuck halfway from the plate to his mouth.
"Remember how fifteen yeas ago you saved the shogun's life by killing four ninjas in Edo? Or do you remember that time in Koga, when a jealous lord had hired assassins disguised as Kabuki actors. You killed seven that time. Seven!" He nodded with a smile as he chewed his mouthful of noodles displaying five fingers and two chopsticks.
"You sure do seem to know a lot about me, but I don't know anything about you... Who are you?" Teruro asked slowly in a voice laden with suspicion and danger.
The man, as if impervious to any form of danger, answered with a bright smile "Me? Oh, I'm Ingen." in a tone that somehow managed to sound modest and boastful at the same time.
"You said you accepted to deliver their message for saké?"
"Yup, that's right."
"Since I don't have time to deal with these men, what would it cost me for you to explain to them who I am or scare them off or something?"
"Well now, since it’s for you… I'll do it for free." The young man replied with his earnest grin as he finished off the last of the food.
Teruro couldn’t help smirking as he watched the strange young man go. He decided go find Takeko and then wait a few moments before leaving, so as to slip away while the stranger took care of the ronin or to save him, as the situation required.
The young man stepped lightly out of the eatery and tied his straw walking sandals under the ronins’ nervous stares. They were hiding behind a pile of chopped wood on the other side of the road and scrutinized the stranger as he walked towards them. He stopped in front of the ronin who had the dubious distinction of being the leader, grinned, and stretched out his open palm.
"I’ve delivered your message, you owe me my drink now."
"Huh? Whadaya mean? What was his answer!" The flustered ronin grumbled.
"He says he ain’t interested."
"If he aint interested why should I give you sake" growled the ronin as he started to draw his sword.
"Come on now, I delivered your message like I promised, so you should keep up your end. If I were a violent man I might react badly and do this… " the smiling young man combined action with speech.
In the blink of an eye, Ingen’s right hand flashed to the ronin’s wrist, pushing the sword back into its sheathe, then flashed up to the ronin’s face to flicked him on the nose twice, then returned to control the man’s wrist before he could draw. The other two ronin, who had been staring flabbergasted up until this point, decided to avenge the outrage done to their boss but halted in midstep when the young man said with a deadly serious face: “Stop! Don’t move.” Something in Ingen’s tone seemed to freeze the three ronin in their steps. Ingen then laughed brightly and his hands blurred as he exploded into unbelievably fast movement. One moment the three ronin stood frozen with sheathed swords at their belts, the next, their belts held only empty sheathes as their blades twirled in the air, flashing as they reflected the sun’s light. Then, before they even had time to react, their blades thunked back into their sheathes.
The ronin blanched, looked at their returned swords, as if disbelieving what they had just seen. the fact in front them disproving the impossibility of the feat. The leader roared and charged at Ingen with wide haymaker punch. The young man politely frowned and casually ducked under the ronin’s and in one smooth spinning movement plucked the man’s sword from his belt again and tapped him on the back of the calf with the flat of the blade sending the leader to fall to the ground in a whimpering heap. The two unharmed ronin fled.
"Now then, about our deal. I don’t think you actually have all the sake I can drink in a night so I’ll take the next best thing." the young man said, bending as he took the ronin’s money-pouch. The wounded ronin said nothing as he watched him walk away for a moment before crawling back towards his camp. No one noticed when Teruro and Takeko, who was carrying a large rice pot, slipped away.