“And now,” laughed Takenaka Chihiro, “I must ask your staff and cooks to leave me to prepare this part of the meal alone. I will call them when I am finished.”

“Why is that, Takenaka-san?” said one of the senior cooks to Matsudaira. “We can assist you ably. You may be one of the most respected cooks in the countryside, but even the best swordsman needs retainers.”

“You mistake my intent, and for that I am sorry. I meant no offense, so if it was given please blame fat, silly Takenaka and the fine words that turn to hollow ash in his mouth. No, friend, I ask you to leave because I am to prepare the fugu, and if the slightest mistake is made, it will be deadly. I work alone so that, if a mistake is made, it is mine and mine alone.”

“Surely such a thing could never happen, Takenaka-san,” said the senior cook.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Takenake with a rueful smile. “Especially if their hands and head are deadened by sake. I once cooked for a daimyo and allowed his chef to assist me. I had too much to drink and cut the fugu liver improperly. Three people were sickened and nearly died. The next day, the daimyo came to me personally. He apologized for the incompetence of his chef, and told me the man had been put to death. For my mistake. Friend, I cannot and will not allow that to happen again.”

Seeing the wisdom in this, the other chefs allowed Takenaka to prepare the final dish himself. He was cutting the fugu with the utmost concentration when a voice broke in: “We have a proposal for you, O Takenaka Chihiro.”

Takenaka did not look up from the fish; he was carving thin, translucent sections off of its flesh and layering them into intricate flowers. “Speak if you must,” he said, relying on his peripheral vision to pinpoint the man who had crept up to him in the abandoned kitchen. “Then leave me to my work. I enjoy a good joke, but now is not the time for levity.”

“No joke, Takenaka-san,” the interloper said. “My master bids you welcome and bears a message: it would be most wise if you were to allow an accident to befall your client, Matsudaira Kiyoyasu. If you allow your concentration to slip, you will be well-rewarded by my liege.”

“My reputation would be forfeit.”

“Not to my liege. He would take you on as a chef, full time, and pay double, triple, what these provincial fools can. You would also have his gratitude, and his resources, both of which would be useful in locating your brother.”

Takenaka laid another paper-thin slice of fugu upon the plate. There were four more interlopers now, each dressed in black, each motionless and speechless aside from the one who had already spoken.

“Begone,” said Takenaka. “I refuse to debase myself and my art to that level.”

The sound of drawn swords followed. “That is…unfortunate.”

“My sashimi knife, Unmei no Fuguhiki, can cut more than fish,” said Takenaka with a smile. “It can also parry a swordstroke. Do you trust your life to being quicker than it, a blade that has sliced every flesh from minnow to man?”

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