The Matsudaira Plot

By Nina Boal

Third Place / Best Writing

 

“I challenge you!” The thin, taut voice flung out its demand from underneath a large straw hat that covered the face.  The ronin, wearing a frayed dark-blue kimono with faded mon, carried a long katana and strode forthrightly into the dojo. Matsudaira retainer Omodaka Masakazu rose from his place.  This ronin will spoil everything in our planning, he pondered to himself. 

“Insolence!”   Hara Seijuro, the Matsudaira clan’s chief instructor faced the tattered figure before him. “We are having a private tournament – starving dogs are not invited.”

Heh, heh! Are you perhaps afraid of me?” The ronin stepped forward. “Should I tell everyone in Edo that the Matsudaira clan’s esteemed Pine Mountain Style kenjutsu school is terrified of challengers, even obscure outsiders like myself?”  The sneering voice continued relentlessly.  “I will spread the word far and wide about how you trembled before this poor mendicant.”

Let’s get rid of him quickly, Masakazu thought.  Then we can continue our plans where we left off.  Masakazu glanced over to where the young lord, Matsudaira Gentaro, was sitting quietly.  Masakazu was Hara Seijuro’s most promising student.  Matsudaira Gentaro, the current clan heir, was the least promising.  The plans Masakazu had – supported by Hara-sensei – were simple.  Masakazu had already thrashed young Gentaro soundly and had won for himself the heirloom sword that was the prize in the tournament. 

Gentaro sat still, trying not very sucessfully to hide his hurt and humiliation. The young man had a pale face and contrasting jet-black hair.  Handsome, a bit pretty perhaps, Masakazu thought. Too gentle and sympathetic to the peasants. Not what we need as our clan’s heir.  More than that, Gentaro was the most hopeless kenjutsu student that had ever crossed into the Pine Mountain Style’s dojo.  Making Gentaro look like the fool that he truly was during this tournament should have finally persuaded the daimyo, Lord Matsudaira Gentetsu to disinherit the young fool; Lord Matsudaira could then choose one of his retainers to marry his daughter Shizue and be adopted as the clan’s heir.

And our clan would be saved, Masakazu concluded.  Shizue held some influence over her father.  Masakazu had been meeting with the lovely and delicate Shizue, holding secret trysts.  Shizue can be quite persuasive in indicating which retainer she wants to marry.  This alliance would not only be beneficial for the couple, but also for his clan.  Which needs a firm, accomplished ruler, not a wistful dreamer who can’t handle a sword.

Now, however, there was the matter of this inconvenient ronin.  “Here, let me take him on,” Masakazu muttered.  “It shouldn’t take long at all to show that beggar the door.”  Hara-sensei nodded.   Masakazu seized a bokken from the rack.  He heaved it at the ronin; the ronin, with a single gesture, gently dipped down to lay the sheathed katana on the floor and then rose up to catch the practice sword.  The ronin’s right kimono sleeve hung empty; the ronin only had one arm.  Masakazu grasped his own bokken. He bowed slightly to his opponent. “Omodaka Masakazu, retainer of the Moriyama Matsudaira clan, Edo headquarters.”

“Excuse me please,” the ronin dipped down again, laying the bokken beside the katana.  Slender fingers wrapped around the straw hat’s brim, pulling the hat off.  The fine hand primped waist-long hair, tied back into a simple pony-tail. “Tange Sakura,” a silken voice replied. The students and their sensei looked up in astonishment.

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I’d like to sleep in an inn, Sakura pondered in her mind. Not on a temple’s floor or underneath the stars. She had just arrived in Edo and she needed a few coins; challenging a dojo was frequently a good way to get some.  “What’s wrong?” she demanded.  She touched her face lightly; her face had a scar where once her right eye had been in place.  She touched her right shoulder where once her arm had filled the kimono sleeve. “Haven’t you ever seen a one-eyed, one-armed monster before?”   She laughed out loud and strutted before the sensei and his students.  “Let’s get on with it. A tournament? Surely you must be giving out a prize to the victor?”  

Her one good eye searched the dojo.  There were the usual row of obedient students, all members of the clan, dutifully awaiting their sensei’s instructions. One young man caught her sight. He was young, handsome – and distraught over something; Sakura could not even guess what it was. 

Not my concern. Her eye fell on a tachi that was leaning on a rack near to where the sensei was sitting.  Sakura gasped in amazement – this must be the prize.  The sword had beautiful appointments: black fuchi wrapped around the hilt with gold menuki peeking from behind the wrapped cloth folds. The long, curved saya, encasing the blade, was smooth and blood-red, emblazoned with what was likely the mon of this branch of the Matsudaira family. A tachi normally would be used during the times of wars.  This was a peaceful time, under the reign of the Tokugawa bakufu and wars had not been fought for almost 200 years.  Sakura took in her breath.  If the tachi were to be the prize, it would be useless as far as paying to stay in an inn. However, to possess something like that?  Even if it’s been protected for generations as an heirloom?  Even if it has never tasted blood?  Sakura let her breath out. Dueling for this prize would definitely be worth the effort; she could figure out a different way to finance paying for an inn.  

Masakazu stared at Sakura.  “I don’t fight duels with weak foolish women,” he said firmly.

She sighed; she had heard this line before, all too many times. What do I do with idiots like these?  She just wanted to fight the duel. Better yet, they could just pay me a few coins to go away. I can forget about that tachiwhat would I do with it anyway? I could head for a nice inn, drink tea or sake, take a bath and relax.

She lowered her voice; she spoke in the language she had learned, as a woman of the buke class.  “Please forgive this ignorant, useless woman.”  The bokken she held in her hand snapped up.  It met up against Masakazu’s bokken.  Gently, she tipped the bokken aside and held her own against Masakazu’s throat.  Masakazu swung his bokken high in the air with the intent of slamming the interloper’s bokken out of her hands. He brought it back down. Sakura pulled her bokken out of the way and Masakazu’s bokken slammed into the dojo’s smooth wooden floor, slipping out of his hand.  Sakura held her bokken’s tip over the back of Masakazu’s neck.  Once more, she spoke in the soft language of a buke woman.  “Please, sir. If I were holding a real sword, I’m afraid that your head would be parted from your body.”

Masakazu pulled himself up from underneath the bokken. “You…,” his hand traveled toward the hilt of his wakizashi.  Sakura held her bokken stiffly out. 

“If you wish, sir,” Sakura continued, “we can fight bokken versus a live blade.  That is fine with me.”   

The retainer shook his head.  “Let’s do this the correct way,” he growled.  “So I can show you the door and we can get on with our clan business.”  He took his hand away from his wakizashi’s hilt and picked up his bokken.  The man who was quite clearly the clan dojo’s sensei stepped into the middle of the dojo’s floor; he would act as the referee. The two duelists bowed to each other.

“Hajime!”  The sensei’s voice shot through Sakura’s consciousness; it was time to begin.   Sakura pulled her bokken high above her head in what was her usual guard stance.  Masakazu put his bokken in a middle chudan position.  Sakura felt a drop in his ki. Too much confidence – remember, he’s dueling with a “weak, foolish woman.”  Her bokken suddenly swept down on top of his, circling underneath it.  The man’s bokken was flipped out of his hands, skittering along the dojo’s hard wooden floor.  Her own bokken’s point was aimed directly at his throat.

Yame!  Enough!” Sakura could hear the sensei’s reluctant pronouncement.  She brought her bokken to her side, bowing to her defeated opponent.  She could feel Masakazu’s eyes boring bitterly into her.  That’s what you get for underestimating your enemy, Sakura pondered to herself. 

She straightened her back, reaching out her hand.  “My prize,” she said plainly.  “For winning your little tournament.”  She stepped toward the tachi.

“Insolence!”  The loud command of the sensei rammed out“This heirloom sword isn’t for a ragtag freak like you.”  He fingered a small packet in his hands.  “This will be your reward – even if you are an ugly creature, you can can dress yourself in a respectable way; you can live a respectable life, acquire a husband, find a woman’s happiness, serve your husband as he would serve his lord.” 

Sakura was tempted – not by the idea of acquiring a husband.  I would be bored to tears living inside of a castle.  However, she knew that money would be most convenient.  It would pay for a night of sleep and entertainment at an inn.   Her good eye rested again on the tachi; she took another step foward.  I won that prize fairly.  The tachi stole her breath – she was not going to give it up so easily.  She dipped down and picked up her katana, her fingers pressed against the tsuba, loosening the blade.  She lowered her voice, once more speaking the language of a buke woman..  “Please, sir.  I don’t want to trouble you.”  Her katana sprung from its sheath; it swept up toward the sensei’s head.  Black strands fell on the dojo’s floor with a soft plop. The sensei ran his hands over the top of his shaved forehead – his topknot had been cut cleanly from his head. 

Sakura’s gaze ran over the remaining students.  She picked up the tachi in her hand. Not a single student offered a challenge as she walked out the door.

Sakura shouldered the tachi as she strolled along the street. This sword – it’s breath-taking. I’ve never ever seen such a fine sword as this. Her large straw amagusa covered her face, though she could peer through it.  Never can be too careful. She sighed; how was she going to buy a room at an inn?  And a nice dinner.  She had eaten poorly the last few days, mostly scrawny fish she had caught from rivers plus a few roots and berries.  She strove to keep herself from unseemly shows of hunger.  What would I do with a huge bowl of white rice with dried bonito and raddishShe shook her aching head.   What was she going to do with this dilemma?  

A bit later, Sakura was seated at a gambling table. She had remembered visiting Kohachi’s den during her last visit to Edo; this was another method for obtaining quick money. Or else losing everything, including one’s kimono, Sakura thought dryly.  Money was flung on the table. Sakura placed the sheathed heirloom sword alongside the coins – this was what she had to bet for the first round.  She listened carefully as the dicer shook the dice inside the basket.  “Even!” She heard the other gamblers call out.  She cocked her head, pondering.

“Odd!” She cried out. The dicer pulled up the basket. The dice showed a two and a one. Sakura scooped up her tachi and the plethora  of coins.  She grasped the tachi’s hilt. It would have been a tragedy if the dice had turned up even. She shrugged.  Can’t be helped.   

A few rounds later, Sakura had enough money to pay for her night of entertainment.  Grasping the tachi and her own katana, she stepped out.  She could feel the envious eyes boring into her back.

Inside the Golden Peony Inn, Sakura sat on the soft pillow of her private room. The maid had just picked up her empty plate where heaping portions of sashimi, rice, garnished with fresh raddish and vegetables had once rested.  Sakura took a small sip of sake from her cup.  Her room contained lush painted fusama, depicting scenes of mountains, bamboo, and fierce tigers traversing the mountains passes.

Samisen music echoed through the thin shoji walls.  Sakura could imagine the gentlemen who were entertained by the inn’s courtesans.  The more affluent ones could buy the company and conversations of highly-ranked, accomplished geisha.   Sakura leaned back.  What if I were a ruling princess from olden days.  I could have entertainers, too. However, they would be beautiful young men, each pouring green tea and sake anytime I desired. I could have layers of flowery silk kimonos. Golden and jeweled kanzashi ornamenting my hair.   

   

“Excuse me!” She heard a soft male voice outside her wall.  The shoji door slid open.  A young man stepped in and knelt down.   He was dressed neatly and simply in a plain light blue kimono with mon and darker blue hakama.  He had thick dark hair, neatly groomed, shaved on the forehead. It contrasted with his fair face.  He immediately bowed low.  Sakura was puzzled. Has the inn’s honored proprietor sent me this beautiful young man for my entertainment?

“Please,” the young man said.  “My name is Matsudaira Gentaro. I was the heir to the Moriyama branch of the Matsudaira fief.   I have disgraced my father and our name with my carelessness in studying kenjutsu.  My father intends to send me to an outlying post and adopt a clan heir who is more proficient.”  He looked up, his face striving to conceal the anguish that lay beneath it.

Sakura was caught between sympathy and annoyance; she  recognized the young man who had been sitting disconsolently in the dojo.  It was obvious that there had been some sort of internal clan conflict.  Why should I care about clan disputes? They have nothing to do with me. And yet the man had a compelling air about him.  

“Please,” the young man continued.  “It’s not about any ambitions of mine to become the lord of the fief. I’m not very proficient, as most can see, so I don’t care if my father disinherits me and names another heir. But,” he sighed.  “Omodaka Masakazu, whom you defeated during the duel, is the man who will be adopted as the clan heir.  He plans a strict rule over the peasants and commoners of our fief. He plans to double the rice taxes because he says that the buke must be properly rewarded for their superior place in the world.”

Gentaro paused just for an anxious breath.  “When I was young, we were taught from the works of Confucius.  One can read what the Master states about rulership; I memorized most of it. The Master wrote in the Great Learning: ‘In the Book of Poetry, it is said, "Profound was King Wen. With how bright and unceasing a feeling of reverence did he regard his resting places!" As a sovereign, he rested in benevolence. As a minister, he rested in reverence. As a son, he rested in filial piety. As a father, he rested in kindness. In communication with his subjects, he rested in good faith.’   A ruler should be kind and benevolent to his people, not overbearing and cruel.”

Sakura cocked her head.  She knew very little about the works of Confucius. In her clan, it was not considered proper for girls to learn the Chinese Classics. Instead, with other buke girls in her fief, she had been taught the skills in running a samurai household, tending to the house and keeping the accounts so that when she was married, her husband wouldn’t be burdened with these trivial matters of the home; that was to be her area of endeavor. 

However, the fates had intervened, so here she was –  her katana and a prize tachi that she had won in a tournament lay by her side.  I’m a stray dog, no husband, no household, no lord, just drifting wherever the wind takes me.
 

She listened as Gentaro continued to explain.  “If the peasants are taxed heavily, they will be in misery and will starve. And then they will rise up in revolt, spreading discord thoughout our fief.  The Shogun could even abolish our clan for such strife occurring in it.”   He indicated the heirloom tachi. “If I were to succeed in returning our sword to where it belongs, I may be able to regain my father’s favor.  Perhaps I would not be named as the lord, but the principles of good governing could be re-established and our clan will prosper.”

“Please, Gentaro-dono,” Sakura invited.  The young man had won her over with his forthrightness.  Perhaps he knew little about martial arts – but was truly wise in the ways of governance. In these peaceful times, we need more men like him. “Would you stay with me for some sake?  Afterward, I will give you back your sword and this will smooth the situation over with your father.”   Gentaro bowed. Sakura handed him a cup and poured sake into it.  Then she poured some in her own cup.  “Let us listen to the samisen music and enjoy this beautiful moonlit evening.”

Noise clattered.  Six hooded men were suddenly in the room.  “Kill him!” one of the hooded men said, pointing at Gentaro.  “Get the tachi. The clicks of loosening tsuba resounded in Sakura’s ears.  Swords were drawn, all pointing at Gentaro.

Sakura shoved Gentaro back, using her elbow.  Her own katana flew out of its sheath as she placed herself in front of the erstwhile young lord.   “Shame on you!” she shouted out.  “We were enjoying the fresh evening, some sake, moon-viewing, and the lovely music when you so rudely interrupted us.”  She advanced on the hooded men, her sword held up high. 

“Kill the monster woman!” Sakura heard a voice from the clump of hooded men.  The men charged. Sakura’s sword swept up and down, dispatching one man after the other. When six dead men were lying scattered, splattering blood upon the tatami floor, Sakura knelt down. “Disturbed a lovely dinner. Can’t be helped.” She let her breath out in a long sigh. She laid her katana on her lap, holding its hilt between her knees. She took tissue out, wiping the blood off her sword’s blade.  She lifted her sword, returning it into its shelter of its sheath.

Gentaro-dono, take your heirloom sword, protect it,” Sakura commanded.  “We need to get you home and show this to your father.  I don’t think that exile to an outlying post is what your colleagues truly have in mind.”  Gentaro clutched the tachi in his hands.  “Please lead me to your Edo castle.” She smiled, softened her voice.  “Like a proper woman should, I’ll follow behind you.”

The two took the winding route to the Moriyama Matsudaira Edo mansion, young lord Gentaro led the way, followed by Sakura.  Three more hooded men jumped out from behind a storage house.  Sakura pushed Gentaro away, drew her sword and confronted the hooded men.  “Don’t you people ever learn?” She pointed at Gentaro.  “You are samurai retainers – unless you are hired stray dogs, though I don’t think so.”  She gave a quick bow.  “This is your young lord and you should treat him with the proper respect.” 

Sakura advanced upon the assassins.  My sword is hungry tonight.  She bent down on one knee, drew her katana straight up. Blood started spurting into the alley. Rising on her feet, a circular blow – more blood flowing.  Her third and final cut stabbed into a tender throat; a scream and a groan, then the third body fell.  Can’t that sensei teach his students anything? He should be discharged from the clan for his incompetence.

Sakura urged her young colleague forward.  “To the castle quickly,” she warned.  “Who knows how many more will be looking for us.”  Gentaro nodded grimly, holding the heirloom tachi tightly against his chest.

The Moriyama Matsudaira’s Edo mansion rose  within Sakura’s sight.  Gentaro walked forward to alert the guards of his coming. He found his way blocked by the imposing figure of a tall swordsman.  “Not any further,” a gruff voice shot out.  “I will save our clan from your stupidity and soft ways.  You were supposed to go into exile. But it seems that you don’t understand.”

Gentaro stood, his back straight.  “Omodaka Masakazu, I figured that you were behind all of the mayhem.  You mean exile into the next world.” he inquired.  “Correct?”  He indicated the swordswoman who stood behind him.  “Sakura-dono has been my guard. Vile thieves and assassins have been attempting to plot against the clan, steal the clan and sorely tax the peasants and commoners.”

“You know nothing about the firm ways that are needed to rule over a fief,” Masakazu asserted. “Die and get out of my way!”  He drew his sword.  “Fighting you is similar to fighting some poor wretch with swords of bamboo. Move aside, hand me the tachi.

Sakura stepped up in front of Gentaro.  “Your young lord may know little of the ways of kenjutsu,” she stated. “It’s clear, however, that he knows a lot more than you about the ways of statecraft. Your ways will lead to mayhem, start rebellions, eventually causing the dissolution of your clan.  Your young lord’s ways will lead to continued prosperity and happiness within your fief.”

“Stupid woman, you know nothing of statecraft!” Masakazu screamed. “If you insist, we will fight this out. Unlike when we were in the dojo during the tournament, I will not hold back at all.”

Sakura lifted her sword high above her head.  She circled her opponent. Unlike his fellow assassins, this man actually knows how to handle a sword.  She extended her ki from inside her, extended it into her arm, up into her katana.  Masakazu drew back his sword into a lowered gedan position.  She continued circling, her sword pulsed in her hand.  His sword swept up, toward her throat.  She sidestepped her opponent, bringing her sword down against his exposed side.  Once more, the spray of blood rose before her eye. 

Masakazu began another charge.  He stopped in his tracks, clutching his chest. Slowly, he sank upon his knees, his anguished cries trailing out of his bloodied lips. He fell down in front of his lord’s mansion. His legs kicked twice, then he was still; he was already on his journey into the next world.

Sakura pulled down her sword. My friend, she addressed her weapon.  Has your thirst been slaked at last?  She flicked the blood off of her blade, then sheathed it inside her scabbard that was inserted underneath her obi sash.  

The next day, it was a clear, cool dawn.  Sakura quietly padded out of the mansion’s gate.  An image of young Gentaro appeared in her mind.  His father had welcomed his true heir home.  Who knows? Lord Matsudaira Gentetsu might even have asked me to remain as his wife’s bodyguard or instructor. Though I can’t imagine any clan wishing to employ a monster woman such as I. However, can’t take any chances.  She had to leave quietly; it would be less embarassing in case of complications.

She straightened out her shoulders, put one foot ahead of the other, her katana by her side. Wonder if I should have kept that gorgeous tachi and left everything else behind.  She strode toward whatever place the winds would guide her.