Takenaka Akira swung his sword again, a weak, wild blow that Chihiro easily parried with the Unmei no Fuguhiki.

“Always the favorite,” he snarled. “The best apprenticeship, the best skills, the apple of our parents’ eye. And what was left for me? You took even my good-for-nothing son.”

“I am sorry,” Chihiro said. “You must know that my thoughts have ever been with you since our separation.”

“Your thoughts?” Akira lashed out with his blade again, drawing a drop of blood as Chihiro moved the blow aside. “I couldn’t eat your thoughts, brother! I couldn’t hear them! Would it have wounded the great and beloved chef-in-training to send his brother money? Or even a letter?”

“I was busy. With my studies.” With each parrying blow, Chihiro’s grip on the Unmei slackened. “I didn’t think-”

“Finally a bit of truth,” Akira snarled. “You didn’t think. I was just some abstract thing to you, not a real flesh and blood brother! I did what I had to do to survive, while you grew fat on the dishes you made!”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“What is the worst thing, Uncle?” said Takenaka Kenji.

Takenaka Chihiro’s normally bright face was dour and wan. “The worst thing, nephew, is that Nakamoto-sama will now make me doubt the sincerity of all who ask for help. Because of her selfishness, I will hesitate a moment longer before I assist anyone, be it with a good meal or a steady blade.”

Kenji took this in a moment. “Won’t it also mean that Nakamoto-sama will also start to think that all people who seem helpful are easily fooled?” he said.

Takenaka’s frown deepened. “It’s true,” he said. “Had I been a violent man, a bandit, I might have struck her down where she stood. I fear the road she is on has a violent end for her.”

The morning wind blew quietly around them as Takenaka and Kenji stook there a moment, quiet.

“Well, what will we do?” said Kenji.

“I think I will do some calisthenics, and you will make a fire,” said Takenaka. “Then we will make a fine supper for our own road ahead. I find that a bellyful of good food goes a long way toward brightening even the darkest of days.”

“Has this been the darkest of days?”

Takenaka smiled a little bit. “It will have to be a very good meal. Perhaps my best. And it’s just for you and I.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Yoshioka Hayato sank to the ground, eyes wide. His sword clattered along with him, while Takenaka Chihiro instinctively wiped the Unmei no Fuguhiki to keep the blood from staining the blade or the handle.

“Curse you for making me do this,” said Takenaka. “To protect myself, I am willing to fight. But I abhor killing and yours is a senseless death, now. If we had just sat down to tea and sweets, like I had suggested, you would be alive and we would be solving this dispute as men do.”

Yoshioka took a few moments to bleed out, but there was nothing that anyone could do for him; the Unmei no Fuguhiki, sharp enough to make fugu sashimi and strong enough to cross blades with any katana, had done its work well. Takenaka’s practiced hands had turned the motion of gutting and preparing a fine cut of food into one of effective murder, as he had far too often in the past for his own liking.

Nakamoto Hona appeared not long after, but Takenaka was shocked by the change in her affect. She stood upright, projected confidence, and even jabbed Yoshioka several times with a small dagger that had been disguised as a fan to ensure that he was dead.

“You do not need to worry about him anymore, Nakamoto-sama,” Takenaka said. “As you predicted, he attacked recklessly and I was forced to defend myself. I must report this to the daikan.”

“Oh, that stuffy old magistrate won’t care. You acted in self-defense, and I will back you up as will anyone who was privy to the confrontation. And most importantly, Yoshioka is dead. Just as I planned.”

Takenaka looked up. “Planned?” he said.

“Think about it, cook,” said Nakamoto. “You, a wanderer, known by reputation but not personally. He, a known hothead and local ne’er-do-well. Now he is dead, and his new wife is both free to remarry with all of his assets coming to her.”

Standing, Takenaka regarded Nakamoto like a stone. “There never was any abuse,” he said flatly. “He was not starving you.”

“No one will blame you, and the daikan will see you on your way. My sob story has made it so no one has come out poorly.”

“No one but Yoshioka,” said Takenaka, sadly, looking down at the body.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Penanggalan Hero Girl Aori (ペナンガラン ヒーローガール あおり)

Manga Premiere: January 30, 2017, currently on Issue 3

Anime Premiere: April 1, 2018, currently on Season 2

OVAs:
Penanggalan Hero Girl Aori: Life Sucks!
The Great Penanggalan Hunt: Malaysia Special
Short Cuts: Penanggalan Hero Girl Aori

Video Games:
Penanggalan Hero Girl Aori: Bathhouse Blast! (Nintendo 3DS) released May 6, 2018
Penanggalan Popple! (iOS) released July 9, 2019
Sapporo Vampiress Diary (Nintendo Switch) released November 5, 2019

Plot:
Aori Takamoto is an attendant at an onsen (a bathhouse heated by natural hot springs) near Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. The bathhouse, called The Lucky Leech after a local legend, is extremely popular due to its reported healing properties despite being rather ramshackle. Aori is always having to deal with a variety of colorful customers, both local regulars and travelers, as well as her two co-workers: the perverted male attendant Riki and the skinflint fifth-generation spa owner Tetsuya.

However, Aori also has a dark secret. During school trip to Kuala Lumpur while she was in college, Aori was attacked by a penanggalan a notorious female vampire from Malay mythology. Until and unless Aoki finds and slays the penanggalan that attacked her she is cursed to live as one herself—possibly the only one in all of Japan.

Each night, her head detaches from her body, which she leaves in her tiny apartment, and flies forth in search of blood. However, being a very kind and conscientious person, Aoki tries her best not to harm the innocent—instead using her position as a bathhouse attendant to identify bad people to feed from. While she is usually able to avoid killing her victims, the number of men who have been found drained of their blood has given rise to a legend of the “Sapporo Vampiress.”

So far, Aori has been able to avoid killing any female victims—which is important, because a slain woman will return to life the next day as another penanggalan!

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Washing up after preparing Lord Matsumura’s fugu dinner was a simple matter, as the daimyo kept a very well-ordered and spotless kitchen. In fact, the other cooks had been dismissed and sent home to allow Takenaka Chihiro to work in silence—a fact he detested, as conversation and jokes were essential to a good kitchen in his view. He was counting out some money to send to the chefs—waged for the day they missed, when he straightened suddenly.

“Would you like me to make you something to eat?” he said. “I’m all out of fugu, but I’m happy to whip up something else.”

The shadow that had silently entered through the window behind him did not reply.

“If you have a pufferfish to bring me, and it’s good quality, I’ll happily prepare it for you as well.”

Takenaka heard the blade being withdrawn from its sheath, and by the time the air was whistling with a furious blow aimed at his neck, he had taken up his knife. The Unmei no Fuguhiki, made for Takenaka by the hand of Sengo Muramasa himself after a particularly fine meal, caught and deflected the blow easily.

With an agility that belied his rotund frame, Takenaka spun around to view his attacker. They wore the mon of the Tamaribuchi clan, and were girded for assassination. The man’s eyes were wide at the chef’s maneuver, and his katana had been buried in a wooden table.

“I am very sorry, my friend,” Takenaka said. “They say the best chefs put something of themselves into every dish, but if anyone is to carve up Takenaka Chihiro to taste, it will be Takenaka Chihiro.”

“My name is Tamaribuchi Yoshimi, and I bear a message from my lord,” the man said.

“Speak it then,” said Takenaka. “Otherwise, I have not yet eaten for myself tonight.”

The assassin visibly strained to remove his sword from the wood. “I will deliver it once my blade is free.”

“Surely you have other blades,” said Takenaka.

“My lord was quite specific that it was to be this blade,” said Yoshimi.

“Well, while you work to free it perhaps you would care to tell me why?” Takenaka said. “If the recipe is death, I am at least curious to see its ingredients.”

“You have been asking questions about Ishikawa Akira—too many questions. My lord will not tolerate interference in his affairs.”

“And what if I told you that Ishikawa Akira was born Takenaka Akira, and that he is my own lost and very much beloved brother? What recipe to those ingredients make?”

“Death, still,” Yoshimi said. “But for different reasons.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

With a final, deft, twist of his knife, Takenaka Chihiro completed the carving of daimyo Matsumura’s fugu. The delicious but deadly pufferfish lay artfully presented, with its most poisonous innards scooped out and discarded—all but the liver, which Lord Matsumura had specifically requested.

Takenaka handed the dish off to a Matsumura retainer. “Here is the daimyo’s dish,” he said. “Tell him to stop eating the liver if he begins to feel a tingling sensation, unless he has an urgent question for the gods, in which case he should eat faster.”

The retainer did not share Takenaka’s full belly laugh at the joke. “I do not think my lord’s death, and my dishonor at failing to prevent it, are matters for comedy,” he said.

“If you wish, I can set you aside a choice cut to taste ahead of time,” Takenaka said with a smile. “If you live, he will. I won’t tell a soul, and the fugu won’t either. After all, he is no longer full of hot air eh?”

Takenaka scooped a piece of sashimi onto a cloth and offered it to the retainer. The man’s lips visibly trembled at the sight of such an expensive delicacy, one he would never be able to afford himself. A moment later, he popped it into his mouth without another sound, and his eyelids fluttered in pleasure at the magnificent taste.

“Lord Matsumura is lucky to have such faithful and diligent men in his employ,” Takenaka said. “Tell your men that I will be happy to prepare them fugu as well, once the lord has had his repast, provided that they bring me a good fish!”

“We cannot afford to pay for such an offer.”

“Well, that’s why I wouldn’t charge you!” Takenaka said.

The retainer cocked his head. “Yet you charge the daimyo,” he said.

“He can afford it!” Takenaka smiled. “Besides, I only ask for what I need to continue my journey.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Unmei no Fuguhiki was carried by Takenaka Chihiro, the most famous wandering chef of the Sengoku Jidai period. Highly sought-after as a maker of sashimi by daimyo, their retainers, and even the Imperial Court, he had pledged as a youth to never settle in an area permanently until he found his brother. Once poor farmer’s children in the Takeda realm, Takenaka Chihiro had been apprenticed to a chef after his parents’ death, while his brother Takenaka Akira had been apprenticed to a fisherman. After making a name for himself in Osaka, Takenaka Chihiro had made his way across wartorn Japan, searching for Akira while earning his way through cooking.

Takenaka’s rotund physique belied his strength and speed, but nevertheless he was continually beset by bandits while traveling and by assassins when he refused his services or refused to serve as a tool of assassination himself. On one occasion, after refusing to deliberately serve improperly prepared, deadly fugu to Matsudaira Kiyoyasu, Takenaka was attacked by no less than five assassins. To protect himself, he carried Unmei no Fuguhiki. It had been made for him by Sengo Muramasa as a gift following a particularly exquisite meal, and despite its appearance as an ordinary fugu knife, it was forged to the same quality and with the same techniques as a samurai blade of the finest quality.

So although Takenaka preferred good humor and abhorred violence, when he was pushed he could wield Unmei no Fuguhiki with the skill of any swordsman, and it could easily parry any blows rained upon it. The same knife that created exquisite sashimi for the greatest nobles of the age was also plunged into the hearts of their darkest assassins when necessary.

When Takenaka died aged 75, Unmei no Fuguhiki was buried next to him at his request. While history does not record whether he ever found his brother Akira, relatives tend his grave to this day. Takenaka never took a wife, and his living relatives believe be was with a nephew at the time of his death.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“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?”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

They called it kobito no haru, the “sweetheart’s spring,” because you were supposed to meet your destined there. I’m sure the was passed around, whispered, in the halls and bathrooms of every high school in Sapporo. It said that you would meet your soulmate at the spring, and that you would know because your heart would flutter, your knees would wobble, and you might even pass out.

I didn’t believe in this, of course, butI was curious. So I went to the spring on a day there wasn’t likely to be anyone there, the evening of the first day of school, when most folks young or naive enough to believe in that were furiously cramming.

When I first saw the ghostly apparition, the spectral figure of a woman in Sengoku-era raiment…well, my heart fluttered, my knees wobbled, and I started to see that dark tunnel vision you get just before you pass out

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Lone parking lot beer
Unlike those who cut it loose
It’s never been drunk

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!