| Home | Recent Updates| Links | Recommended Reading | Sign the Guestbook | View the Guestbook |

Jizamurai

Excerpt from "Jizamurai" by Thomas Davidson December 2002.

 

MIKAWA
1544

The escort was small, just twenty men, but the bandit gangs who made their living from the Tokaido had long ago learned to weigh risk against reward, and if a score of spears was not enough to deter them, there was still the samurai who rode close behind a curtained palanquin to contend with.

And although he never saw them, Toda Gensuke knew they were there. He was dressed in muted colours, greens and browns, as suits the hunter, and under a close-fitting doeskin jerkin his sleeves were drawn tight so as not to restrict the draw of the bow he carried across the pommel of his saddle. On his right hip twenty four arrows were loosed in their quiver, on his left two swords sat tight in the folds of his obi, worn blade-edge up in the new fashion brought down the Tokaido, the Eastern Sea Road, by gimlet-eyed ronin, samurai without situation, eager to prove their worth to any potential employer.

"This is your chance, Gensuke," his father had said to him on the evening before his departure. The meal was finished and the trays taken away. The shutters closed and candles lit, shadows creeping out from the corners of the room. "Okazaki is not Tawara. A man can stand up straight there. Make a name for himself."

Gensuke said nothing. It had become a common refrain with his father almost from the day the order had come down from the castle. Standing straight had become a byword for honour and dignity in their house, and over the last few years he had seen his father gradually stripped of both. But their family misfortune could not snuff out his dream, the dream of every young man at arms, to make a name for himself; to show his mettle in battle, and thereby attain recognition and reward.

"You're father has written a letter." Gensuke's mother, taking her seat opposite her son at the firepit, slipped the chain that lowered the pot hanger and reached inside her sleeve. Smoke curled passed the kettle she had hung from the hook and drifted up into the darkness of a steeply-pitched roof, hidden by the sheaves of cut grass laid across the rafters to dry. She handed him a thick packet bound with a strip of faded cotton tape.

"A few words only," his father said, staring at the bundle ruminatively. "I am not a fair hand."

Gensuke reached out and took the letter reverentially. For as long as he could remember, family matters were discussed and decided here. Village business, too. The room was long, the floor half-timbered and on many occasions he had witnessed villagers, sometimes up to a dozen, squatting on the dirt below the hearth to hear his father make his pronouncement upon the issue at hand. A cup of sake, for no matter how many present, marked the matter closed. His decision was final.

"Should I give it to Lord Hirotada himself?"

Genshiro scratched at his beard. "No. That would not be proper."

"I doubt you'll get to speak to him, my son." His mother observed flatly.

"Don't crush the boy's hopes, woman!"

"Well, don't fill his head with dreams!"

Gensuke studied the bundle. The paper was coarse and of poor quality, but as he turned it in his hands it appeared to absorb the firelight and glow as if brimming with life, with hope, with the promise of a future. Shadows flickered across his features which seemed to have been chiselled from an over-abundance of bone, so that he was all square, all lines and sharp angles, all chin and cheek and brow and nose.

The sweet scent of warm sake mixed with the fish oil of the lamps.

"Dreams, is it?" The fourth person round the firepit, sitting to Gensuke's left, was Noyori Shigemasa, his father's companion and perhaps his one true friend. Their guest, far from being embarrassed by this exchange, which was more affectionate than angry, turned and dipped his head conspiratorially towards Gensuke, and wagged a thick and knotted finger to emphasise his point, "Your father's name is not unknown at Okazaki, oh no! An introduction from Toda Genshiro will not be treated lightly. You keep that letter safe."

Kaeda scoffed as she unhooked the kettle. Noyori nodded, picking up the shallow, broad-brimmed cup and held it out to her. Genshiro looked up, and shrugged at his son with a wry smile. "His lordship has no cause to remember me. One of the hatamoto, if there's a chance. You know the names."

Gensuke nodded and returned the smile. Ever since the wedding of his cousin to the Lord of Mikawa had been announced, he and his father had been schooling themselves on the names and notables of the Matsudaira clan. He knew the names of the hatamoto, the senior retainers, as if they were his own kin.

"Don't listen to him, Gensuke!" Noyori wiped his mouth, made a satisfied noise at the taste of the rough local brew, and and slapped the youth on the knee. "At Azukizaka who was it who covered our retreat?"

"Well, you were there old friend," Genshiro said.

"I was running as fast as I could go!"

"You stood with me in the thick of it!"

Noyori accepted a refill from Kaeda, and threw back the sake in one gulp. It made Gensuke smile to see the old campaigner place the cup between himself and his hostess so she might not have far to reach to refill it. More than once he had to be led by the arm when the time came to make his way home.

Gensuke sat back with a start as their guest swung round towards him. The round face, flushed with alcohol, shone in the firelight. "Not so! Ah no! The truth? I was running and I tripped, see?" He mimicked a man in frantic flight, looking back over his shoulder, then pounced at Gensuke, "I tripped! Fell in a heap, arse up in a ditch! I jumped up," he began again, with the exaggerated mannerisms of a strolling player, "and carried on running. The wrong way!" They were all laughing. "Next thing, I'm back where I started! The bastards were everywhere, beggin' your pardon, ma'am, and your father there in the thick of it! 'No hurry, old friend,' he says to me, the way he does, 'there's plenty here for both of us!"

"Quiet, you old fool!" Genshiro scratched at the back of his head with both hands, a gesture he performed when annoyed or embarrassed, and vigorously when both, as now. His wife reached out with a loving hand, knowing how he suffered praise, so richly deserved yet so rarely given.

"There's no reward in defeat," he grumbled.

Gensuke watched the exchange between the two men, and hoped that one day he might be considered worthy of his father's name. Their defence of the retreat at Azukizaka was legend in the Atsumi Peninsula, the quiet corner of Mikawa where they lived, but it marked a watershed in their fortunes. Three years before Imagawa Yoshimoto, Lord of Suruga and Totomi, had led his men through Mikawa to a battle at Azukizaka, on the frontier between Mikawa and Owari. The Matsudaira had fought with the Imagawa, being allies for more than a generation. The Toda were retainers of the Imagawa, and marched under Yoshimoto's banner. But it was Oda Nobuhide, Lord of Owari, who prevailed upon the day, and soon the Matsudaira, the Imagawa and the Toda, were forced to flee the field.

"Keeping your head is sometimes reward enough!"

Toda no danjo Shohitsu Yasumitsu, Lord of the Tawara, father of the bride and Genshiro's older brother, had led their little force to safety whilst these two men, one his father and the other more an uncle than either of those by blood, had been left behind to close the road to their pursuers. So stout was their defence that soon the road was blocked with Oda dead, and in the confusion the two men, against all the odds, had managed to slip away and rejoin the Atsumi contingent.

By rights both men deserved a handsome reward. The traditional practice was the conferring of land, and thus income, the source of wealth for the warrior. But in Atsumi county every yard was accounted for, and no measure could be afforded the two men without taking from another, unless Yasumitsu chose to give a part of his own meagre estates, which he had no wish so to do. Both men had to make do with scant priase from the Lord of Tawara but little more, certainly nothing of substance. No sooner had the warriors returned home empty handed than there were heard whispers of Yasumitsu's hasty departure from the field, although there was no reason to doubt his courage, which had never failed him before. Whatever the reason for it, his prompt withdrawal stood in poor contrast to Genshiro and Noyori's stalwart rearguard action.

Unable to trace the source of the rumour, Yasumitsu responded with an angry but impotent silence. He would suffer no mention of the defeat, which had now turned into a personal disaster, and it might have ended there had not certain trusted tongues, his own son among them, began to wonder whether Genshiro himself might have been instrumental in playing the issue for his own advantage. Bruised and embittered by the whole affair, Yasumitsu was blind to their cupidity and relations between the brothers soured rapidly, and without resolution worsened steadily over the months that followed.

"Heaven preserve us!" Gensuke's mother threw her hands up at each of them as if to shoo the men away. "You men!" she tutted and shook her head, "Ignore them, Gensuke, but see what too much sake does to your wits!"

"Hush, woman," scolded her husband, the laughter still in his voice, "and refill our cups. Pour the boy one too!"

"All this talk of battles," she scowled, reaching for the kettle on the hanger. Noyori, still chuckling, held out the empty cup. Gensuke held up his cup and with a stern look across the fire she poured a meagre portion. "You'll want a clear head in the morning, my son! Anyway, if Eiko has any sense at all she will name you to him." She emphasised the point by clapping the kettle back onto the hanger.

"She's right," said Genshiro, his mood suddenly lifting. "It was she who asked that my son accompany her," he explained to Noyori. "She will surely mention him to Hirotada himself!"

By rights Eiko's brother, Yasumitsu's only surviving son and heir, should have led the procession to Okazaki, but Masanao had fallen from his horse whilst hawking, and broken his leg. The physicians declared it a clean break, one that would mend without impairment, but he must rest the limb, for a while at least. He was certainly in no fit state to make the journey to the provincial capital.

Two days later, the summons had come from the castle. Gensuke was by no means a popular choice, and Yasumitsu would have entrusted his daughter to anyone rather than the son of his estranged brother, but in the end there was no real alternative. Eiko had pleaded that he be allowed to accompany her from the start, and in the end even Nakayama, his chief councillor and the main protagonist against Genshiro, seemed to accord with the idea.

Kaeda looked at her son and saw the doubt in his eye. "Have no fear of her. She might be her father's daughter, but she knows her own mind."

Noyori pursed his lips and nodded sagely, then lifting his cup to the youth broke into a wicked grin. "Let's drink to the root that tripped Masanao's horse!"

The toast was well meant, but ill-timed, and the mention of the name brought a sudden silence to the feast. Masanao's ambition knew no bounds, and he was hungry for what little land there was to be had in Atsumi. It was he who stood to profit most by Genshiro's downfall, and although he accepted his father's decision, when Gensuke paid him a visit to wish him a speedy recovery, Masanao hardly bothered to conceal his contempt for his cousin.

Noyori's face fell, and he lowered the cup from his lips untouched. "Fool Noyori! You have the mouth of a fish out of water!" He leant forward, pulling a face, eyes popping, mouth turned down at the corners, gaping and then lips smacking wetly shut.

"Ssh!" Kaeda scolded him gently, "As if a friend cannot speak openly in this house! Things aren't that bad. Tell him, Genshiro."

"Things aren't that bad, old friend," Genshiro said as ordered. "Not yet, at least!"

Noyori turned suddenly to Gensuke, assuming a formal kneeling posture and offering an apologetic bow, head hanging between his shoulders, carrying his weight on straight arms, the fists bunched beside his knees. "I am sorry! I have spoiled everything!"

Gensuke reached out and laid a hand on his hunched shoulder. The firelight traced patterns in the scars that criss-crossed Noyori's forearms. At the siege of Nodoyama, in the fight at the castle donjon, he had lifted a burning beam that had fallen and trapped his father. The scars matched the pattern of the chain mail sleeves that he wore.

"Please, uncle." It was a word he felt but had rarely used.

Noyori's head snapped up and he fixed Gensuke's eyes with his own that blazed brighter than the fire, "Don't come back, Gensuke! Listen to your father and don't come back!"


The second day dawned hotter than the first.

There was not a cloud in the sky, and what little breeze there was hardly stirred the square banner held aloft at the head of the column. A single character, To, in black upon a white field, was its only decoration. It meant earth, and was the first part of his name.

Okazaki could be reached in a day, but they were in no hurry and Yasumitsu didn't want his daughter delivered tired and dusty from the road. So the procession moved at a leisurely pace, and had stopped the previous afternoon at Yoshida, and spent the night there, at a comfortable inn that had been prepared for them. Relations with the lord of Yoshida Castle were cool, but courteous. The Toda were retainers of the Imagawa, Yoshida of the Matsudaira, and thus directly answerable to Hirotada. For this reason Gensuke regarded the unexpected gift, a bolt of Chinese silk, more as a means of ingratiating himself with Hirotada than anything else.

On the road Toda Gensuke looked for all the world like a rustic squire of those parts, a young gentleman of a quaint, somewhat rustic quality, and certainly, much as he might try and conceal it, of limited means. On close inspection his homespun clothes showed the signs of repair to hems and seams, and here and there even a patch, so carefully worked as to be almost invisible. The colour of his jacket was beginning to fade. On his head he wore a simple split-reed hat, its brim turned up on one side in a jaunty manner that belied the stern face below it. A pattern of spots, sunlight striking down through the loose weave of his hat, danced across a broad, flat forehead and prominent cheekbones. The impression he gave was of a compact mass of a man, strong as an ox, built like one too, not a man to be taken lightly. Those few eyes he did see, peeking from the shadows of the houses they passed along the way, were met with a hard and steely gaze, his own eyes deepset beneath a brooding mass of brow.

His mood had begun to change.

The day before his spirits rose with every mile put between himself and Tawara. Today they were dampened by a degree of apprehension about what lay ahead. Toda Gensuke was just seventeen, and though he would never admit it, was growing nervous at the prospect of meeting the Lord of Mikawa. His education had been at the hands of the monks of the Tokoji, in the highlands south of Tawara. His schooling was simple and suited to the life of a jizamurai, a soldier of the land. He could read and write, he knew his numbers and worked simple sums, but the monks concentrated more on the martial skills, at which he excelled.

He could not play an instrument, nor compose poetry, nor had he ever read a Chinese treatise on the art of war.

The Atsumi peninsula was some forty miles long, never more than ten miles wide, and Tawara stood about a third of the distance along its length. His father's holdings stretched along the shoreline, and they drew their living from the sheltered waters of Mikawa Bay, primarily fish, seaweed and salt. Visitors of any note were few and far between.

The world tended to pass them by.

How would he conduct himself among the elders at Okazaki? And what would they make of him, a bumpkin and butt of their jokes?

"May we stop, cousin?" Her voice shocked him from his reverie.

"Soon," he said.

It would be hot inside the palanquin. Suffocating. It was hot enough in the saddle. Even at their sedate pace, the dust lifted under their sandals and hung in a cloud over the little column. The spearmen sweated under their borrowed armour. The porters, naked but for loincloths and headbands and bent beneath the weight of their cargo, had assumed the same colour and texture of the road, their sweat ran in dark rivulets, tracing the whipcord contours of muscle honed by a lifetime of labour.

"Do you truly fear for my safety, so close to Okazaki?"

"I fear nothing, lady," he corrected her, somewhat pointedly, "but until you are delivered to your husband, I will not relax my guard."

For a moment she was inclined to argue, but she heard the stiff formality in his voice and knew it would be to no avail. She was fifteen, two years his junior, and had grown up in a samurai household, and knew that having pricked his pride, his reaction would be one of stubborn and obstinate refusal. Her cousin, more than most, could at times be exceedingly thick-headed. She sat back and fanned herself vigorously, her anger turning inward at the stupidity of the slip of the tongue, but succeeded in doing little more than move the foetid air and gritty dust around the closeted interior of her palanquin.

It crossed his mind that he might, in his brusqueness, have upset her, but he paid no heed. His own thoughts weighed heavily, and to escape this sombre and brooding mood brought on, he knew, by inactivity, he walked his horse forward to the head of the column.

Marching before them all, Sugimoto, one of the village headmen and a barrel of a man, held aloft a nagae-yari, an eighteen foot spear, the butt resting in a bamboo socket fixed to a belt round his ample waist. Its blade was unsheathed, and from the collar hung the banner and a crimson tassle. He supported the spear easily in one lumpen fist, and his round pellet head bobbed on a body that matched the huge iron cauldrons they used for making salt on the beaches at home. Sugimoto was a wrestling champion on the peninsula, and had accompanied Gensuke's father on many of his campaigns. Gensuke had ridden on the man's shoulders as a boy, and it was Sugimoto who had educated him in the ways of village life, him how to fish, how to row a boat, how to manage the reef when the wind ran against the tide.

"Do you know this road, Sugimoto?"

"Aye, young master." To the villagers of his father's fief Genshiro was 'dono' and Gensuke had been called waka-dono, 'young lord', for as long as he could remember, and would remain so, he hoped, for a long time. "The road turns inland to Okazaki soon, but there's another river to cross just yet."

"How does the land lie?"

"Like this, for a while. After the river it closes in and we climb."

Gensuke nodded and looked around. Fields bordered the road, the occasional farmhouse, or cluster of buildings forming a little village. If close by the farmers would cease their labours and form a line and bow. If further off they would just watch, cautiously, but without stopping. The ground was hard and stony, the life one of toil and hardship to eke two annual crops from the poor soil, and only then if the weather held.

Gensuke paid them no more attention other than to make sure there were no surprises.

"There's a view of Tawara up ahead," Sugimoto was pointing. "Through the trees. Might be the last, I think?"

Gensuke nodded, then let his horse drop back until he was alongside the palanquin. "The road turns inland ahead. It will be our last sight of Tawara. We can stop here for a moment, if you wish."

"Homesick already, cousin?" despite the mounting humidity, the suffocating heat inside the palanquin, the voice was light and bright and full of laughter.

Gensuke managed a smile. "Let me assure you, lady," he said, rather stuffily, "I have nothing in mind but your best interest."

"Indeed so?" The curtain twitched but remained closed. She was intent in extracting every moment of pleasure that might be had from the journey. "Perhaps my cousin has already set his heart on Okazaki?"

Gensuke opened his mouth, frowned, and then shut it. There was no point in uttering a denial. In all truth she was right, and he hoped for just such an outcome, moreso than he had reason to. There was nothing he could think of better than a position in the Okazaki garrison. Anything to get away from Tawara and the hostility directed at him there. His father's letter of introduction was concealed close to his body. Upon this note, he felt sure, his fate and his future rested.

"If his lordship should deign to advance this poor servant in his service," Gensuke replied eventually, in such mechanical tones that Eiko was in little doubt that he had practiced this reply each night before sleeping, "then it would be my solemn duty to accept."

"Not too solemn, I hope," she chided him. "This is supposed to be a happy occasion."

This time the smile transformed his stern and somewhat severe features. "Indeed it is, lady, but allow that I reserve my joy until my task is complete."

"Task, cousin?" she asked him, "am I such a burden to you then?"

"I rejoice at your good fortune, cousin."

"And your own," she said sharply.

"And mine," he acknowledged. "I believe I have you to thank for that, cousin?"

"I'm glad it's you, and not Masanao."

"This is his place, not mine."

"There's nothing to stop him visiting me, when he's better," she said somewhat sniffily.

"At least he will make a full recovery." Yasumitsu had likewise broken his leg in a fall. His was a noble wound, suffered in battle, but one which had not mended well. The leg was stiff, and he walked with a limp.

"Masanao is jealous of you, you know that, don't you?" She said suddenly. "You and your father both." She wondered for a moment if she had said too much, and in the the silence that followed she knew that she had.

Gensuke was shocked by her frankness, and casting around for some distraction, eventually blurted out, "here is a good a place as any," and swung his horse away to issue his orders to the procession.

"I am happy for you cousin," she said quietly, in the shadows of the palanquin. "But with you at Okazaki, I fear for him."

Sugimoto was right. The road turned inland sharply, and as it did so, the land fell away on the seaward side quite steeply. At one point, a ledge stuck out where the roots of two ageing cypress trees held the ground in place. Their branches met overhead, like an arch over the view that looked out across a patchwork of narrow fields below, then a broad salt marsh, and then the sea. By standing between the trees it was possible to look back the way they had come, and where the land turned round into the peninsula, there stood Tawara.

It was set some way back from the shoreline, and trees hid the walls, but its white plastered donjon, three stories tall, stood pale in the sunlight.

Eiko felt a pang, not so much for Tawara itself but for her friends and family, especially her mother, who had died so many years ago. Her father had remarried but his new wife remained a stranger to her. Now she in turn was leaving to become another man's wife, and such a man! She had never dreamt that the lord of a province would be her spouse. She had hoped, but never expected. Such a thing had seemed beyond her. A marriage to one of her father's captains, perhaps, or more likely the lord of some other castle. For a while she had hoped of a position at Sumpu, Lord Imagawa's castle and a city to rival Kyoto itself! But this, the marriage to Hirotada, was more than she ever expected. And a young man, too, just a few years older than herself! She prayed often at her mother's grave, and at those of her ancestors, but her mother most of all, and she felt sure that somehow her influence had reached beyond the grave. A chill ran down her spine.

"Are you cold, cousin?" his voice, sudden and close, made her jump.

"Oh! No, no, just a shiver."

"Shall I fetch a wrap?" He turned to call to one of the maids who waited close by.

"No," she reached out and touched his sleeve. His arm was warm beneath the material, or was her hand cold? "Really. It is nothing."

"If you are sure?"

"Yes," she said, then, "really, thank you."

Gensuke dismissed the maids, waving them back to a more discreet distance, but he remained close under the cover of the trees. He watched his cousin's back, wondering what thoughts passed through her mind, then lifted his own eyes to that distant tower.

It had not been an easy departure.

They had all been there, seated in a line atop a raised earth bank that stood before the middle castle gate; his uncle Yasumitsu, a once powerful warrior, crippled now but still tenacious in control of his domain; to his left Masanao had to be carried in a litter, nursing his broken leg; beside him Goromitsu, another uncle; and then Genshiro, out-spoken but long-sufferingly loyal. As ever, alone on Yasumitsu's right hand side, sat Nakayama Hanshiro, his chamberlain, and Masanao's tutor in the art of politics.

The castle courtyard had been raked with clean, white sand that morning, and two rows of tatami had been laid flanking the path that cut across it. Here sat the officers of Tawara Castle and the headmen from the villages that formed the Toda demense, invited to a celebratory breakfast before the departure of Lord Yasumitsu's daughter to her husband and her new home. Food had been eaten and sake drunk, and for a while at least, differences put aside. As the sun rose over the walls to warm the guests, the babble of conversation sank to a murmur.

At the appointed hour Gensuke emerged from the shadows of the outer gate. Inside the courtyard he dropped to one knee and bowed in salute to his uncle, then his family, then the guests. As he stood and walked forward, an uncertain silence fell upon those watching. Even the seabirds, wheeling overhead, cawed as if in warning.

He was bareheaded. His simple homespun hunting garb stood in sharp contrast to the bright, celebratory colours around him. A groom had followed through the gate with his hat and leading his horse by its bridle, another carried his bow and quiver, another his lance. They stopped and waited just inside the gates.

Gensuke advanced between the rows of seated men with a calm but measured step. Noyori was beaming at him and he managed a glance, the hint of a smile. At the foot of the steps climbing to where Yasumitsu sat before the middle gate a mat had been placed for him, and here he knelt, slipping his sword from his obi and placing it carefully at his left side, parallel with his leg, edge inward, the tsuba level with his knee, his forefinger hovering a moment over the guard before drawing back to rest on his thigh. Then both hands touched the edge of the mat and he bowed in deep obesiance. "You servant Gensuke is here, my lord."

But it was his cousin Masanao, forever scheming for his own advantage and ill-pleased at being robbed of such a heaven-sent opportunity, who broke the silence:

"It seems our cousin treats his duties so lightly he intends to disport himself with hunting along the way," he observed dryly.

"Not so, cousin," Gensuke responded equably, careful not to offer offense but returning the insult by refusing, or rather not bothering, to meet his cousin's eye. Instead, he found Yasumitsu's angry frown and held it.

"The road lies east sire," he began, "to Okazaki and the heart of Mikawa. The whole province celebrates the coming of Lord Hirotada's bride, and should any man raise his hand against her I'll shoot him down like the dog that he is!"

"Gensuke!" called Nakayama in mock horror, raising his hands, revealing them as thin, delicate and almost bloodless as the heavy silk sleeves fell back from his wrists. "Let us not sully this day with talk of trouble! Surely the gods themselves smile on this noble venture? It is they who will vouchsafe the Lady Eiko to the house of Matsudaira." Beside him, Yasumitsu nodded with gruff assent. Masanao, awaiting the blade that slipped in beneath the silken words, simply smiled. Goromitsu nodded because Yasumitsu nodded, and he followed his brother in everything. Genshiro's expression was fixed in a grim impassivity, a stone beside Masanao's smile, and Gensuke, only now turning to face them, caught his father's expression and understood precisely what it implied, and readied himself for what both knew would surely follow.

"Let this be your one concern," Nakayama continued, not disappointing them. "Banish all thought from your mind. Concentrate only on the great task your lord and uncle has so graciously entrusted to one so young and inexperienced. Let not the impetuosity of youth lead you astray. Heaven does not look favourably upon the ill-conceived venture, and a myriad evils await the unwary along life's journey. Look to your duty, Gensuke, for in this you are safe, for when the mind strays the path is lost, and the hunter soon find himself the hunted!"

Nakayama ended his soliloquy with both hands extended towards Gensuke as if imploring him to remember his calling, but the embarrassed silence which followed broadcast the fact that no-one had missed the implicit meaning of his words. A pulse throbbed in Gensuke's temple, but throughout he had sat passive and relaxed, his hands resting on his thighs. His palms itched for the comfort of the worn silk binding of the hilt of his sword. He felt his colour rise, but dare not utter a reply lest his tongue gave way to the anger that boiled inside him.

It was Genshiro who broke the gathering and ominous quiet, when to everyone's amazement he threw back his head and laughed. "My lord Nakayama, indeed your wisdom is unbounded." Shaking his head he wiped an imaginary tear from his eye, "but you do have the habit of filling a young man's head with the saws of old women!" His full-throated laugh echoed off the walls. "Surely t'is now you who casts a shadow on such a glorious day!"

It was a delicate moment. As Yasumitsu's chamberlain Nakayama held no small office, but he was not Toda by blood, nor did he possess Genshiro's unrivalled record in the field of battle. As much as Yasumitsu favoured his aide, he could ill afford to rebuke his brother at a public gathering. The bad blood between them was issue enough, but too many guessed its likely cause correctly for Yasumitsu to act without clear and unarguable provocation.

"Come brother," continued Genshiro, allowing Nakayama no time to make a reply, "if Gensuke does not know his duty now, he never will. Each one of us has impressed the need for vigilance upon him. Much more delay and the journey will be finished by moonlight!"

"Yes, yes." Yasumitsu nodded testily, tapping his knee with his fan. he flashed a questioning glance at his chamberlain, but Nakayama simply nodded in quiet acquiescence and settled back, folding his hands in his lap. He allowed himself a smile. Sufficient damage had been done, for the moment, and there was little more to be had by quibbling.

There would be plenty of time, later.

"Gensuke!" barked Yasumitsu, not quite ready to let matters lie. "Listen to what Nakayama has told you. Mark it well!" His voice rose into a sudden shout as he raged at the son, the proxy of the father.

"Take this," he held out the fan, "as the mark of your commission, and carry yourself properly upon the road. Remember, we entrust into your safekeeping not your cousin, but the hopes and future of our house."

Yasumitsu held the fan at arm's length. Gensuke mounted the steps, and kneeling, reached out to take it. For a moment his hand rested alongside his uncle's, but Yasumitsu did not let go, and said softly, "Our ancestors will be watching you this day."

"I will not fail them, sire." Gensuke felt the other's grip loosen, and he took the fan in both hands, and bowed to it. "I shall not fail you, you have my word."

I don't suppose you will, Nakayama thought as Gensuke rose and turned away, but it matters not. Either way, I shall have your head.


All comments and criticisms welcome. Please email tom.davidson@ehsbrann.com