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Three Princesses

At about noon, the soldiers at the castle gate started to yell.

"They're coming!"

The gunners on the walls jostled one another, searching out targets. But the only enemy who was approaching was a solitary rider, and he was ambling up to the gate in a very nonchalant way. If he were an envoy, he would be arriving with an escort of mounted men. Filled with doubt, the defenders watched the man approach.

As he came closer, one of the commanders spoke to a soldier with a rifle. "He's got to be an enemy general. He doesn't look like an envoy, and he's being very audacious. Fire on him once."

The commander had meant for one man to fire a warning shot, but three or four men fired together.

As they fired, the man stopped, as if surprised. He then held up a war fan with a red sun on a gold background, waved it over his head, and shouted, "Hey, soldiers! Wait a minute! Is Kinoshita Hideyoshi a man you want to shoot? Do it after I've talked to Lord Nagamasa." He ran as he yelled, until he was almost directly under the castle gate.

"Well, it's Kinoshita Hideyoshi of the Oda, all right. I wonder what he wants." The Asai general who peered down at him was skeptical about his reason for coming, but forgot about trying to shoot him.

Hideyoshi looked up at the castle gate. "I would like you to convey a message to the citadel," he shouted again.

What was going on? Voices that seemed to be deliberating noisily could be heard, on a derisive laugh mixed with the voices, and a general from the Asai stuck his head out over the parapet.

"Forget it. I suppose you're one more advocate coming as an envoy from Lord Nobunaga. You're just wasting your time once again. Go away!"

Hideyoshi raised his voice. "Silence! Where is the rule allowing a man with the status of a retainer to drive away his lord's guest without ever inquiring into his lord's intentions? This castle is as good as taken already, and I'm not so stupid as to take the time and trouble to come here playing the role of an envoy to hurry its destruction." His words were not exactly humble. "I've come here as Lord Nobunaga's representative, to offer incense in front of Lord Nagamasa's mortuary tablet. If we've heard correctly, Lord Nagamasa is resolved to die and has had his own funeral conducted while he is yet alive. They were friends during this life, so shouldn't Lord Nobunaga be allowed to offer incense too? Isn't there still grace enough here for men to exchange that kind of courtesy and friendship? Is the resolution of Lord Nagamasa and his retainers nothing but an affectation? Is it a bluff or the false courage of a coward?"

The face over the castle gate withdrew, perhaps out of embarrassment. No answer came for a little while, but finally the gate opened a little.

"General Fujikake Mikawa has agreed to speak with you for a few moments," the man said as he beckoned Hideyoshi in. But then he added, "Lord Nagamasa has refused to see you."

Hideyoshi nodded. "That's only natural. I consider Lord Nagamasa to have already passed away, and I am not going to press the point."

As he spoke, he walked in without looking to the right or left. How could this man walk into the midst of the enemy so calmly?

As Hideyoshi walked up the long sloping path from the first gate to the central gate, he paid absolutely no attention to the man who was leading him. When he approached the entrance to the citadel, Mikawa came out to meet him.

"It's been a long time," Hideyoshi said, as though it were nothing more than a normal greeting.

They had met once before, and Mikawa returned the greeting with a smile. "Yes, it certainly has been a long time. Meeting you in these circumstances is quite unexpected, Lord Hideyoshi."

The men in the castle all had bloodshot eyes, but the face of the old general did not look hard-pressed at all.

"General Mikawa, I haven't seen you since Lady Oichi's wedding day, have I? It's been quite a long time."

"That's right."

"That was a splendid day for both our clans."

"It's hard to tell what fate has in store. But when you look at the disturbances and cataclysms of the past, even this situation is not so unusual. Well, come inside. I can't give you much of a reception, but can I offer you at least a bowl of tea?"

Mikawa led him to a teahouse. Looking at the back of the old, white-haired general, it was clear that he had already transcended life and death.

It was a small, secluded teahouse, down a lane through the trees. Hideyoshi sat down and felt that he was in a different world entirely. In the quiet of the teahouse, both host and guest were temporarily cleansed of the bloodiness of the outside world.

It was the end of autumn. The leaves of the trees fluttered outside, but not a speck of dust settled on the polished wooden floor.

"I hear that Lord Nobunaga's retainers have recently taken up the art of tea." Making amiable conversation, Mikawa lifted the ladle toward the iron kettle.

Hideyoshi noted the man's decorum and hastily apologized. "Lord Nobunaga and his retainers are well versed in tea, but I'm a dullard by nature and don't know the first thing about it. I only like the taste."

Mikawa put down the bowl and stirred the tea with the whisk. His graceful movements were almost feminine in nature. The hands and body that had been hardened by armor did not seem cramped in the least. In this room furnished with nothing more than a tea bowl and a simple kettle, the gaudiness of the old general's armor looked out of place.

I've met a good man, Hideyoshi thought, and he drank in the man's character more than his tea. But how was he going to get Oichi out of the castle? Nobunaga's distress was his own. Since his plan had been employed so far, he felt responsible for solving this problem too.

The castle would probably fall on any day they wanted it to, but it would not do to bungle the job now and have to pick through the ashes for the gem. Furthermore, Nagamasa had let both parties know that he was determined to die, and that his wife was ofthe same mind.

Nobunaga's impossible hope was to win the battle and recover Oichi without harm.

"Please don't worry about formalities," Mikawa said, offering him the tea bowl from where he knelt in front of the hearth.

Sitting crossed-legged in the warrior style, Hideyoshi artlessly received the tea and drank it down in three gulps.

"Ah, that was good. I didn't think tea could taste this good. And I'm not trying to flatter you."

"How about another bowl?"

"No, my thirst has been quenched. The thirst in my mouth, at least. But I don't know how to quench the thirst in my heart. General Mikawa, you seem to be someone I can talk to. Would you hear me out?"

"I'm a retainer of the Asai, and you're an envoy of the Oda. I'll listen to you from that standpoint."

"I'd like you to arrange for me to meet with Lord Nagamasa."

"Such a thing was refused when you were at the castle gate. You were let in because you said that you had not come to meet Lord Nagamasa. Coming this far and then going back on your word is a dishonorable trick. I can't put myself in that position and allow you to meet him."

"No, no. I'm not talking about meeting the living Lord Nagamasa. As Nobunaga's presentative, I would like to salute the soul of Lord Nagamasa."

"Stop playing with words. Even if I did convey your intentions to him, there's no reason to think that Lord Nagamasa would consent to see you. I had hoped to partake in the highest warrior etiquette by sharing a bowl of tea with you. If you have any sense of shame, leave now while you haven't dishonored yourself."

Don't move. Refuse to go. Hideyoshi had resolved not to budge until he had achieved his goal. He sat there in silence. Mere words were clearly not going to be any kind of strategy against this seasoned old general.

"Well, I'm going to take you back," Mikawa offered.

Hideyoshi looked grimly in the other direction and said nothing. Meanwhile, his host had prepared a bowl of tea for himself. After drinking it in a dignified manner, he put away the tea implements.

"I know this is selfish, but let me stay here a while longer, please," Hideyoshi said, and did not make a move. His expression indicated that he probably could not have been moved with a lever.

"You can stay there as long as you like, but it won't do you any good."

"Not necessarily."

"There are no two ways about what I said just now. What are you going to do here?'

"I'm listening to the sound of the water boiling in the kettle."

"The kettle?" he laughed. "And you said you didn't know anything about the Way of Tea!"

"No, I don't know the first thing about tea, but it is a pleasant sound, somehow. Maybe it's from hearing nothing but war cries and the whinnying of horses during this long campaign, but it's extremely pleasant. Let me sit here for a moment by myself and think things through."

"It won't make any difference what your meditations are. I'm certainly not going to let you meet Lord Nagamasa, or even step one foot closer to the keep," Mikawa said as he got up to leave.

Hideyoshi made no answer other than to say, "This kettle really has a nice sound to it." He edged a little closer to the hearth and, lost in admiration, gazed intendy at the iron kettle. What had suddenly caught his attention was the pattern raised on the antique surface of the iron. It was hard to say whether it was a man or a monkey, but the tiny creature, its arms and legs supported by the branches of a tree, was standing insolently between heaven and earth.

It looks like me! Hideyoshi thought, unable to suppress a spontaneous smile. He suddenly recalled the time he had left the mansion of Matsushita Kahei and roamed the mountains and forests with nothing to eat and nowhere to stay.

Hideyoshi did not know whether Mikawa was outside, peeping in on him, or had gone away in exasperation, but in any case, he was no longer in the teahouse.

Ah, this is interesting. This is really interesting, thought Hideyoshi. He looked as if he were talking to the kettle. Alone, he shook his head. As he did so, he thought about his decision not to move, no matter what.

Somewhere in the garden, Hideyoshi heard the guileless voices of two young children, trying hard not to burst out laughing. They were looking at him through the gaps in the fence around the teahouse.

Look how much he looks like a monkey."

"Yes! He's just like one."

I wonder where he's come from."

He must be the messenger from the Monkey God."

Hideyoshi turned his head and spotted the children hiding behind the fence.

While Hideyoshi had been engrossed in the design on the kettle, the two children had been secredy observing him.

Hideyoshi was struck with jubilation. He was certain that these were two of Nagamasa's four childrenthe boy, Manju, and the girl his elder sister, Chacha. He shot them a smile.

"Hey! He's smiling!"

"Mister Monkey smiled."

The two children immediately started whispering. Hideyoshi pretended to scowl at them. This had even more of an effect than smiling. Seeing that the monkey-faced stranger was so quick to join in their games, Manju and Chacha stuck out their tongues and made faces at him.

Hideyoshi glared at them and the two children glared back, trying to see who could last the longest.

Hideyoshi burst out laughing, conceding defeat.

Manju and Chacha laughed excitedly. Scratching his head, Hideyoshi beckoned them with a wave to come over and play another game.

The two children were intrigued by his invitation, and stealthily pushed open the brushwood gate.

"Where did you come from, mister?"

Hideyoshi came down from the veranda and began to tie the cords of his straw sandals. Half in fun, Manju tickled the back of Hideyoshi's neck with a stalk of pampas grass. Enduring this mischief, Hideyoshi finished tying the cords.

But when he stood up to his full height, and they saw the look on his face, they lost heart and tried to run away.

For his part, Hideyoshi was taken by surprise. As soon as the boy began to run away, he caught him by the collar. At the same time, he tried to grab Chacha with his other hand, but she screamed at the top of her voice and ran off crying. Manju was so shocked at being caught that he did not let out a whimper. But, falling down, he looked up underneath Hideyoshi, and seeing the man's face and the entire sky upside down, he finally screarmed.

Fujikake Mikawa had left Hideyoshi alone in the teahouse and was walking along the garden path. He was the first to hear Chacha's cries as she fled and Manju's screams, Alarmed, he ran back to see what the matter was.

"What! You wretch!" He let out a horrified shout, and his hand instinctively grasped the hilt of his sword.

Standing astride Manju, Hideyoshi shouted in a commanding voice for the old man to stop. It was a difficult moment. Mikawa was about to strike Hideyoshi with his sword, but shrank back in fear when he saw what Hideyoshi was ready to do. For Hideyoshi's eyes and the sword he held in his hand both showed that he was ready to cut Manju's throat without the least hesitation.

The skin of the self-possessed old general turned to gooseflesh, and his white hair stood on end.

"Y-you wretch! What are you going to do with the boy?" Mikawa's voice was almost plaintive. He edged closer, his whole body shaking with regret and anger. When the retainers who had accompanied the general understood what was happening, they yelled for all they were worth, waving their hands, informing everyone of the situation immediately.

The guards from the central gate and the inner citadel had also heard Chacha's cries and now hurried toward the scene.

Around this bizarre enemy who glared at them while holding his sword at Manju's throat, the samurai formed a steel circle of armor. They remained at a distance, frightened perhaps at what they saw in Hideyoshi's eyes. They had no idea what to do, other than raise an uproar.

"General Mikawa!" Hideyoshi called out at one face among them. "What is your answer? This method is a bit violent, but if I don't do this, I don't see any other way of not embarrassing my lord. If you don't give me an answer, I'm going to kill Master Manju!" He looked around with big fiery eyes and went on, "General Mikawa, have these warriors withdraw! Then we'll talk. Is it so difficult to see what to do? Your understanding is slow. It would be difficult, after all, to kill me and save the boy's life without causing him injury. It's exactly the same as Lord Nobunaga taking this castle and wanting to save Oichi. How could you save Master Manju's life? Even if you shot me with a musket, this blade would be likely to pierce his throat in that very moment."

For some time it was only his tongue that was enlivened, and it had been like a rushing stream. But now his eyes were moving as well as his tongue, and along with his eloquence, all of the extremities of his body were keenly and constantly attentive to the enemy on all sides.

No one was able to do a thing. Mikawa felt the immensity of his mistake, and seemed to be listening carefully to what Hideyoshi was saying. He had recovered from his temporary shock and returned to the calm he had displayed in the teahouse. Mikawa could move at last; he waved his hand at the men around Hideyoshi. "Move away from him. Leave this to me. Even if I have to take his place, the young lord must not be harmed. Each of you return to your posts." Then he turned to Hideyoshi and said, "As you wished, the crowd has dispersed. Now, would you please hand over young Manju to me?"

"Absolutely not!" Hideyoshi shook his head forcefully, but then changed his tone of voice. "I will return the young lord, but I want to return him to Lord Nagamasa in person. Will you please see about getting me an audience with Lord Nagamasa and Lady Oichi?"

Nagamasa had been standing in the crowd that had dispersed a little before. When he heard Hideyoshi, he lost his self-control. Overcome with his love for his son, he ran forward, screaming abuse at Hideyoshi.

"What kind of foul play is this, holding an innocent child's fate in your hands, just so you can talk! If you're really the Oda general Kinoshita Hideyoshi, you should be ashamed of such a sinister scheme. All right! If you'll hand Manju over to me, we'll talk."

Oh! Lord Nagamasa, were you here?" Hideyoshi said, politely bowing to Nagamasa despite the man's expression. But he still straddled Manju and held the point of his short sword to the boy's throat.

Fujikake Mikawa spoke from one side in a quavering voice. "Lord Hideyoshi! Please release him! Isn't His Lordship's word sufficient? Put Master Manju into my hands."

Hideyoshi took no notice of what he was saying, and looked in the direction of Asai Nagamasa. Staring straight at Nagamasa's pale face and desperate eyes, he finally gave a deep sigh.

"Ah. So you too know what it is to love a blood relative? You actually understand compassion toward a loved one? I didn't think you understood that at all."

"Aren't you going to give him to me, you scum? Are you going to murder this young boy?"

"I haven't the least intention of doing that. But you, who are a father, don't have any respect for family affections."

"Don't talk foolishness! Doesn't every parent love his child?"

"That's right. Even the birds and beasts," Hideyoshi agreed. "And if that's the case, I suppose you cannot ridicule as foolish the fact that Lord Nobunaga, because of his desire to save Oichi, cannot destroy this castle. And what about you? You're Oichi's husband, after all. Aren't you taking advantage of Lord Nobunaga's weakness by tying the lives of a mother and her children to the fate of your castle? That's exactly the same as the way I now hold down Lord Manju and press this sword to his throat so that I can talk with you. Before you declare my method to be cowardly, please consider whether your own strategy isn't just as cowardly and cruel."

As he spoke, Hideyoshi picked up Manju and held him in his arms. Seeing the relief spreading over Nagamasa's face, he abruptly stepped toward him, put Manju into his arms, and prostrated himself at his feet. "I fervently beg forgiveness for this violent and rude act; from the very beginning, my heart was not in it. I took such a measure first of all to try to lessen the plight of Lord Nobunaga. But also I thought it regrettable that you, a samurai who has shown such admirable resolution to the end, might hereafter be spoken of as someone who lost control of himself in his final moments. Make no mistake; this was partly for your own sake, my lord. Please grant me the release of Oichi and her children."

He did not really feel as though he were appealing to the enemy commander. He faced the man's soul and completely divulged his true emotions. His palms were folded at his breast and he was kneeling respectfully in front of Nagamasa; it was obvious that this gesture arose from complete sincerity.

Nagamasa closed his eyes and listened silently. He folded his arms, his feet planted firmly. He looked just like a statue in full armor. Hideyoshi seemed to be mouthing a prayer to the soul of Nagamasa, who seemed to have become, as Hideyoshi had declared when he entered the castle, a living corpse.

The hearts of the two menone intent on prayer, the other intent on dyingcame into contact for just a moment. The barrier between enemies was lifted, and the complex emotions that Nagamasa felt toward Nobunaga suddenly fell away from his body like flaking whitewash.

"Mikawa, take Lord Hideyoshi somewhere and entertain him for a while. I would like time to make my farewells."

"Your farewells?"

"I'm leaving this world and I want to tell my wife and children good-bye. I'm already anticipating death and have even had a funeral service for myself, but can separation during life be worse than separation at the moment of death? I think Lord Nobunaga envoy will agree that it is worse."

Shocked, Hideyoshi lifted up his face and looked at the man. Are you saying that Oichi and her children can go?"

"To embrace my wife and children in the arms of death and let them perish with this castle was ignoble. I had resolved that my body was already dead, and yet my shallow prejudices and evil passions remained. What you've said has made me feel a sense of shame. I earnestly beg you to look after Oichi, who is still so young, and my children."

"With my life, my lord." Hideyoshi bowed his head to the ground. In that instant he could imagine Nobunaga's happy face.

"Well then, I'll meet with you later," Nagamasa said as he turned to leave, and he walked back toward the keep in long strides.

Mikawa led Hideyoshi to a guest room, this time as Nobunaga's formal envoy.

Relief could be seen in Hideyoshi's eyes. Then he turned and spoke to Mikawa. "Im sorry, but would you wait a moment while I send a signal to the men outside the castle;

"A signal?" Mikawa was suspicious, and not unreasonably so.

Hideyoshi, however, spoke as though his request were natural. "That's right. I promised to do that when I came here at Lord Nobunaga's command. In case things did not go well, I was to set a fire as a signal of Lord Nagamasa's rejection, even at the cost of my life. Lord Nobunaga would then attack the castle at once. On the other hand, if everything went well and I was able to meet Lord Nagamasa, I was to raise a banner. In any case, we agreed that the troops would simply wait until a signal was given."

Mikawa looked surprised at the man's preparations. But what surprised him even more was the signal shell that Hideyoshi had hidden near the hearth in the teahouse.

After raising the banner and returning to the guest room, Hideyoshi laughed and said, "If I had seen that the situation was not going well, I had planned to run as fast as possible to the teahouse and kick the signal-fire shell into the hearth. That would have been some tea ceremony!"

Hideyoshi was left on his own. It had been well over three hours since Mikawa had brought him to the guest room and asked him to wait for just a moment.

He certainly is taking his time, Hideyoshi thought, bored. The evening shadows were already darkening the fretwork ceiling of the empty room. It was dark enough in the room for lamps to be lit, and when he looked outside he could see the setting sun of late fall turning the mountains around the castle a deep crimson.

The plate in front of him was empty. At last he heard the sound of footsteps. A tea master walked into the room.

"As the castle is under siege, I'm afraid I have little to offer you, but His Lordship has asked me to prepare you an evening meal." The tea master cheered the guest by lighting couple of lamps.

"Well now, under the circumstances you don't have to worry about a meal for me. Rather than that, I'd like to talk with General Mikawa. I'm sorry to trouble you, but could you call him?"

Mikawa appeared soon afterward. In a little under four hours he had aged ten years; he seemed to have lost all vigor, and his eyelids showed the traces of tears. "I'm sorry," he said, "I've been terribly rude."

"This is really no time to be thinking about normal etiquette," Hideyoshi replied, but I am wondering what Lord Nagamasa is doing. Has he said his farewells to Oichi and the children? It's getting late."

"You're absolutely right. But what Lord Nagamasa said so bravely at first well, now that he's telling his wife and children that they must leave him forever I think you can imagine" The old general looked down and wiped his eyes with his fingers. "Lady Oichi says that she does not want to leave her husband's side to return to her brother. She keeps pleading with him, so it's difficult to see when they'll be finished."

"Yes, well"

"She's even pleaded with me. She said that when she was married, she resolved that this castle would be her grave. Even little Chacha seems to understand what is happening to her mother and father, and she's crying pitifully, asking why she has to leave her father and why he has to die. General Hideyoshi forgive me, I'm being rude." He dabbed his eyes, cleared his throat, and broke down crying.

Hideyoshi sympathized with what Mikawa was going through and could understand only too well Nagamasa and Oichi's grief. Hideyoshi was more easily moved to tears than other men, and now they quickly streaked down his face. He sniffled repeatedly and looked up toward the ceiling. But he did not forget his mission and reprimanded himself -he must not be led astray by mere emotion. He wiped away his tears and pressed ahead.

"I promised to wait, but we can't wait forever. I would like to request that a time limit be put on their leave-taking. You might say until what hour, for example."

"Of course. Well I'll make this my own responsibility, but I'd like to ask you to wait until the Hour of the Boar. I can declare that mother and children will have left the castle by then."

Hideyoshi did not refuse. Yet there was no time for such leisure: Nobunaga was determined to take Odani before sunset. The entire army was waiting expectantly. Although Hideyoshi had flown the banner signaling that the rescue attempt had been successful, too much time was passing. There was no way for Nobunaga or any of his generals to now what was going on inside the castle. During this time, Hideyoshi could imagine their perplexity, the various opinions going around headquarters, the indecision and confusion on Nobunaga's face as he listened to the voices of doubt.

"No, that's not unreasonable," Hideyoshi agreed. "So be it. Let them make their unhurried farewells until the Hour of the Boar."

Cheered by Hideyoshi's consent, Mikawa went back to the keep. By that time the colors of evening were already deepening. Servants and the tea master served Hideyoshi delicacies and sake that would not ordinarily have been found inside a besieged castle.

When the servants withdrew, Hideyoshi drank by himself. It seemed as though his entire body was soaking up the autumn from the thin-edged lacquer cup. It was a sake on which you could not get drunkcold and slightly bitter. Well, I should drink this with gusto, too. How much difference is there between those going to their deaths and those left behind? I suppose you could say only an instant, when you take the long-term philosophical view, considering the flow of thousands of years. He did his best to laugh out loud. But every time he drank, the sake chilled his heart. Somehow, he felt as if sobbing were pressing in on him in the oppressive silence.

Oichi's sobs and sorrow; Nagamasa; the innocent faces of the children: he could imagine what was taking place in the keep. What would it be like if I were Asai Nagamasa? he asked himself. After thinking this way, his emotions took a sudden swing, and he remembered his last words to Nene:

"I am a samurai. I might die in some battle this time. If I am killed, you should marry again before you are thirty years old. After you reach thirty, your beauty is going to wane, and the possibility of a happy match is going to be dim. You are capable of discretion, and it is better for a human being to be prepared with discrimination in this life. So if you've passed thirty, choose a good path with your own sense of discrimination. I'm not going to order you to remarry. And again, if we have a child, plan a future for that child to be your mainstay, whether you're young or on in years. Don't give yourself up to the complaints of women. Think as a mother, and use your mother's discrimination in everything you do."

At some point Hideyoshi had fallen asleep. Which is not to say that he had lain down; he just sat there and looked as though he were practicing meditation. From time to time he nodded his head. He was good at sleeping. He had developed this ability during the unfavorable circumstances of his youth, and was so disciplined that he could nod off whenever he wanted to, regardless of time or place.

He awoke to the sound of a hand drum. The food trays and sake had been taken away. Only the lamps still flickered with a white light. His lightheadedness had cleared away, and the fatigue had left his body. Hideyoshi realized that he must have slept for quite a while. At the same time he somehow felt a sense of cheer wrapping his entire being. Before he had gone to sleep, the atmosphere in the castle had been one of gloom and melancholy; but now it had changed with the sounds of the drum and laughing voices, and strangely, a genial warmth seemed to be floating in from somewhere.

He couldn't help feeling as though he had been bewitched. He was clearly awake, however, and everything was real. He could hear the sound of a hand drum, and someone was singing. The sounds were coming from the keep and were far away and indistinct, but he was sure someone had burst out laughing.

Hideyoshi suddenly wanted to be with people and went out onto the veranda. He could see a great number of lamps as well as people in the lord's residence on the other side of the wide central garden. A light breeze carried the smell of sake, and when the wind blew in his direction, he could hear the samurai beating time and singing.

The flowers are crimson,

The plums are scented.

The willows are green,

And a man's worth is decided by his heart.

Men among men,

Samurai that we are;

Flowers among flowers,

Samurai that we are.

Human life passes like this.

What is it without some pleasure?

Even if you'll never see tomorrow.

No, especially if you'll never see tomorrow. This was Hideyoshi's cherished theory. He, who despised the dark and loved the light, had found something that was a blessing in this world. Almost unconsciously he ambled in the direction of the gaiety, pulled along by the singing voices. Servants went running by in a hurry. They were carrying large trays piled high with food, and a barrel of sake.

They hurried with the same kind of eagerness they would probably show in the battle for the castle. It was certainly a gay party, and the vigor of life appeared on every face. It s enough to make Hideyoshi a little doubtful. "Hey! Isn't that Lord Hideyoshi?"

"Oh, General Mikawa."

"I wasn't able to find you in the guest room and was looking all over for you." Mikawa had the blush of sake on his cheeks too, and he no longer looked so haggard.

"Why all this gaiety in the keep?" Hideyoshi asked.

"Don't worry. As I promised you, it will end at the Hour of the Boar. It is said that since we must all die, the manner of our dying should be glorious. Lord Nagamasa and all his men are in high spirits, so he opened up all the sake vats in the castle and let it be known that there would be an Assembly of the Samurai. This way they're going to drink their farewells to each other before they leave this world."

"What about his farewell to his wife and children?"

"That's been taken care of." Through his intoxication, tears once again began to well up in Mikawa's eyes. An Assembly of the Samuraithis was a common affair in any clan, a time when the iron-clad divisions between classes and between lord and retainers were relaxed, and everyone enjoyed themselves with drunken song.

The assembly served a dual purpose: it was Nagamasa's farewell to his retainers, who were going to their deaths, and to his wife and children, who would live.

"But it's going to be boring for me just to hide away until the Hour of the Boar," Hideyoshi said. "With your permission, I'd like to attend the banquet."

"That's exactly why I was looking around for you. It's what His Lordship desires as well."

"What! Lord Nagamasa wants me to come?"

"He says that if he's entrusting his wife and children to the Oda clan, you must look after them from now on. Especially his young children."

"He shouldn't worry! And I'd like to tell him that in person. Would you take me to him?"

Hideyoshi followed Mikawa into a large banqueting hall. Every eye in the room turned toward him. The smell of sake filled the air. Naturally, everyone was in full armor, and every man there had resolved to die. They were going to die together; like blossoms taking in the wind, they were ready to fall all at once. But now, as they were having the best time they could, suddenly here was the enemy! Most of them glared at Hideyoshi with bloodshot eyeseyes that would make most men cower.

"Excuse me," Hideyoshi said to no one in particular. He entered, walking with small steps, and advanced right up to Nagamasa, in front of whom he prostrated himself.

"I have come, grateful that you've commanded that a cup should be extended even to me. Concerning the future of your son and three daughters, I will protect them even at the cost of my own life," Hideyoshi said in one breath. Had he paused or appeared to be in the least bit afraid, the samurai around him might have been driven to some unfortunate action through their inebriation and hatred.

"That is my request, General Hideyoshi." Nagamasa took a cup and passed it directly to him.

Hideyoshi took the cup and drank.

Nagamasa seemed satisfied. Hideyoshi had not dared to mention the name of Oichi or Nobunaga. Nagamasa's beautiful young wife was sitting with her children off to the side, hidden by a silver folding screen. They huddled together like irises blooming at the edge of a pond. Hideyoshi looked at the flickering of the silver lantern from the corner of his eye, but did not look at them directly. He returned the cup respectfully to Nagamasa.

"For the time being, we should forget that we are enemies," Hideyoshi said. "Having accepted this sake at your assembly, with your permission, I would like to perform a short dance."

"You want to dance?" Nagamasa said, expressing the surprise of all the men present. They were a little overawed by this little man.

Oichi drew her children to her knee, just as a mother hen might protect her chicks. "Don't be frightened. Mother is here," she whispered.

Having received Nagamasa's permission to dance, Hideyoshi got up and walked to the middle of the room. He was just about to begin when Manju cried out, "It's him!"

Manju and Chacha held fast to their mother's lap. They were looking at the man who earlier had been so frightening. Hideyoshi began to beat the time with his foot. At the same time, he slapped open a fan that showed a red circle on a golden field.

Having so much leisure,

I gaze at the gourd at the gate.

Now and then, a gentle breeze

Unexpectedly there, by chance here;

Unexpectedly, by chance,

The gourd vine, how amusing.

He sang in a loud voice, and danced as though he had not one other thing in his mind. But before his dance had ended, gunfire rang out from one section of the castle wall. Then came the sound of return fire from a shorter distance. It seemed that the forces both inside and outside the castle had started to fire on each other at the same moment.

"Damn it!" Hideyoshi swore, throwing down his fan. It was not yet the Hour of the Boar. The men outside the castle had known nothing about that, however. Hideyoshi had given no second signal. Thinking that they would not make an attack, he had felt more or less secure. But now it seemed that the generals at headquarters had lost patience and decided to press Nobunaga to take immediate action.

Damn it! Hideyoshi's fan fell at the feet of the castle's commanding generals, who had all stood up together, and this brought their attention quite clearly to Hideyoshi, whom until now they had not thought of as an enemy.

"An attack!" shouted one man.

"The coward! He lied to us!"

The crowd of samurai split into two. The larger group dashed outside while the rest of the men surrounded Hideyoshi, ready to hack him to pieces with their swords.

"Who ordered this? Don't strike him! That man is not to be killed!" Nagamasa suddenly yelled at the top of his voice.

His men shouted back as though they were challenging him, "But the enemy has started a general attack!"

Nagamasa ignored their complaints and called, "Ogawa Denshiro, Nakajima Sakon!"

The two men were his children's tutors. When they came forward and prostrated themselves, Nagamasa also called for Fujikake Mikawa. "The three of you are to protect my wife and children and guide Hideyoshi out of the castle. Go now!" he commanded.

Then he looked sternly at Hideyoshi and, calming himself as much as possible, said, All right, I'm entrusting them to you."

His wife and children threw themselves at his feet, but he shook them off and shouted, "Farewell." With that one word, Nagamasa grasped a halberd and ran off into the howling darkness.

One side of the castle was engulfed in mounting pillars of flame. Nagamasa instinctively shielded his face with one hand as he ran. Splinters of burning wood, like wings of flame, grazed his face. A thick black smoke was winding its way over the ground. The first and second Oda samurai to breach the castle walls had already called out their names. The flames had reached the mansion in the keep and were running up the gutters faster than the rain had ever gone down them. Nagamasa spied a corps of iron-helmeted men concealed in that area and suddenly lunged to the side.

"The enemy!"

His close retainers and family members stood around him and struck at the invading troops. Above them were the flames, all around them was black smoke. The clanging armor rang out, spear against spear, sword against sword. The ground was soon covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. The larger part of the soldiers in the castle followed Nagamasa and fought as long as they could, each achieving a glorious death. Few of them were captured or surrendered. The fall of Odani Castle was nothing like the defeat of the Asakura in Echizen or of the shogun in Kyoto. So it could be said that Nobunaga's judgment in choosing Nagamasa as a brother-in-law had not been wrong.

The troubles of Hideyoshi, who had saved Oichi and her children from the flames, and those of Fujikake Mikawa, were not concerned with the battle. If the attacking troops had only waited another three hours, Hideyoshi and his charges could have been led out of the castle easily. But only minutes after they had left the keep, the inside of the castle was engulfed in flames and fighting soldiers, so that Hideyoshi was finding it very difficult just to protect the four children and get them out.

Fujikake Mikawa carried the youngest girl on his back, her elder sister, Hatsu, went on the back of Nakajima Sakon, and Manju was strapped on the back of his tutor, Ogawa Denshiro.

"Hop up onto my shoulders," Hideyoshi told Chacha, but the little girl refused to leave her mother's side. Oichi held the girl close as though she would not let her go. Hideyoshi wrenched them apart and scolded them. "It would not do for you to be hurt. I'm begging you, this is what Lord Nagamasa asked me to do."

This was no time to treat them sympathetically, and even though his words were polite, his tone was frightening. Oichi put Chacha on his back.

"Is everybody ready? Stay by me. My lady, please give me your hand." Shouldering Chacha, Hideyoshi pulled Oichi by the hand and started out straight ahead. Oichi stumbled along, barely able to keep from falling. Soon she pulled her hand free from Hideyoshi's grasp without saying a word. She followed as a mother would follow, half-crazed with distraction for the children who were in front of her and behind her in the midst of the fury.

Nobunaga was now watching the flames of Odani Castle, which were almost close enough to burn his face. The mountains and valleys on all three sides were red, and the burning castle roared like a huge smelting furnace.

When the flames finally turned to smoking ashes and it was all over, Nobunaga could not hold back his tears over his sister's fate. The fool! he cursed Nagamasa.

When all the temples and monasteries on Mount Hiei had been consigned to the flames along with the lives of every monk and layman on the mountain, Nobunaga had watched unmoved. Now those same eyes were filled with tears. The slaughter on Mount Hiei could not be compared with the death of his sister.

Human beings possess both intellect and instinct, and they often contradict each other. Nobunaga, however, had great faith in his destruction of Mount Hieithat by destroying one single mountain, countless lives would be promised happiness and prosperity. The death of Nagamasa held no such great significance. Nagamasa had fought with a narrow-minded sense of duty and honor, and thus Nobunaga had been forced to do the same. Nobunaga himself had asked Nagamasa to abandon his stunted sense of duty and to share his own larger vision. Certainly he had treated Nagamasa with a large degree of consideration and generosity to the very end. But that generosity had to have a limit. He would have been lenient with the man right up to this evening, but his generals woul not permit it.

Even though Takeda Shingen of Kai was dead, his generals and men were still in very good health, and his son's abilities were supposed to excel his father's. Nobunaga's enemies were only waiting for him to stumble. It would be folly to wait passively in northern Omi for a long time after he had defeated Echizen with one blow. Listening to this sort of reasoning and argument from his generals, even Nobunaga had been unable to speak up for his sister. But then Hideyoshi had requested permission to be Nobunaga's envoy for just one day. And although he had sent a signal of good news while it was still light, evening came, and then night, and he had sent no further report whatsoever.

Nobunaga's generals were indignant.

Do you think he was tricked by the enemy?"

"He's probably been killed."

"The enemy is planning some scheme while we're off guard."

Nobunaga resigned himself and finally gave the order for an all-out attack. But after making his decision, he wondered if he had not sacrificed Hideyoshi's life, and his regret was nearly unbearable.

Suddenly a young samurai wearing black-threaded armor ran up in such a hurry that he almost hit Nobunaga with his spear.

"My lord!" he gasped.

"Kneel!" a general ordered. "Put your spear behind you!"

The young samurai fell heavily to his knees under the stares of the retainers surrounding Nobunaga.

"Lord Hideyoshi has just returned. He was able to get out of the castle without mishap."

"What! Hideyoshi is back?" Nobunaga exclaimed. "Alone?" he asked hurriedly.

The young messenger added, "He came with three men of the Asai clan, and with the lady Oichi and her children."

Nobunaga was trembling. "Are you sure? Did you actually see them?"

"A group of us guarded them on the way back, right after they ran from the castle, which was collapsing in flames. They were exhausted, so we took them to a place of safety and gave them some water. Lord Hideyoshi commanded me to run ahead and make this report."

Nobunaga said, "You're Hideyoshi's retainer; what is your name?"

"I'm his chief page, Horio Mosuke."

"Thank you for bearing such good news. Now go and take a rest."

"Thank you, my lord, but the battle is still raging." With this, Mosuke quickly took his leave and dashed out toward the faraway clamor of warriors.

"Divine help" someone mumbled off to the side with a sigh. It was Katsuie. The other generals also congratulated Nobunaga.

"This is an unanticipated blessing. You must be very happy."

A thread of emotion found its way wordlessly among them. These men were jealous of Hideyoshi's accomplishments, and were the very ones who had advocated abandoning him and hastening a general attack on the castle.

Nevertheless, Nobunaga's joy was overflowing, and his excellent mood immediately caused a brighter spirit to spread through his headquarters. While the others were offering their congratulations, the shrewd Katsuie said privately to Nobunaga, "Shall I greet him?"

Receiving Nobunaga's permission, he hurried off with a few retainers down the steep slope toward the castle. Finally, under the protection of Hideyoshi, the long-awaited Oichi climbed up to the headquarters on the plateau. A small corps of soldiers went in front, carrying torches. Hideyoshi panted along behind the men, still carrying Chacha on his back.

The first thing Nobunaga saw was the sweat on Hideyoshi's forehead, glistening in the light of the torches. Next came the old general, Fujikake Mikawa, and the two tutors, each carrying a child on his back. Nobunaga gazed at the children silently. No emotion showed on his face at all. Then, from about twenty paces to the rear, Shibata Katsuie came up, a white hand holding the shoulder of his armor. The hand belonged to Oichi, who was now half-dazed.

"Lady Oichi," Katsuie said, "your brother is right here." Katsuie quickly led her to Nobunaga.

When Oichi had fully regained her senses, all she could do was weep. For an instant the woman's sobbing blotted out every other sound in the camp. It wrung the hearts of even the veteran generals who were present. Nobunaga, however, looked disgusted. This was the beloved sister he had worried about so much until just a few moments before. Why wasn't he greeting his sister with wild joy? Had something ruined his mood? The generals were dismayed. The situation passed even Hideyoshi's understanding. Nobunaga's close retainers were constantly troubled by their lord's quick changes of mood When they saw the familiar expression on his face, not one of them could do anything but stand by silently; and in the midst of the silence, Nobunaga himself found it difficul to cheer up.

There were not very many of Nobunaga's retainers who could read his inner thought; and disentangle him from his moody and introverted self. In fact, Hideyoshi and the absent Akechi Mitsuhide were about the only ones who had this ability.

Hideyoshi watched the situation for a moment, and since no one seemed about to do anything, he said to Oichi, "Now, now, my lady. Go to his side and greet him. It won't do just to stand here crying for joy. What's the matter? You're brother and sister, aren't you?'

Oichi did not budge; she could not even look at her brother. Her mind was set on Nagamasa. To her, Nobunaga was nothing more than the enemy general who had killed her husband and had brought her here, a shamed captive in the enemy camp.

Nobunaga could tell exactly what was in his sister's heart. So, along with his satisfaction at her safety, he felt an uncontrollable revulsion for this foolish woman who could not understand her brother's great love.

"Hideyoshi, let her be. Don't waste your breath." Nobunaga stood up abruptly from his camp stool. He then lifted a section of the curtain surrounding his headquarters.

"Odani has fallen," he whispered, gazing at the flames. Both the battle cries and the fires burning the castle were dying down, and the waning moon cast a white light on the peaks and valleys as they waited for the dawn.

Just then, an officer and his men ran up the hill, yelling victory cries. When they set down the heads of Asai Nagamasa and his retainers in front of Nobunaga, Oichi screamed, and the children clinging to her started to cry.

Nobunaga shouted, "Stop that noise! Katsuie! Get the young ones out of here! I'm putting them in your careboth Oichi and the children. Hurry up and take them of someplace where no one will see them."

Then he summoned Hideyoshi and told him, "You will be in charge of the former Asai domain." He had decided to return to Gifu as soon as the castle had fallen.

Oichi was helped away. Later she would marry Katsuie. But one of Nagamasa's three young daughters who had come down the fiery mountain that night held a fate even stranger than her mother's. The eldest, Chacha, was later to become Lady Yodogimi, Hideyoshi's mistress.

* * *

It was the beginning of the Third Month of the following year. Good news had come to Nene, which, of course, was a letter from her husband.

While some of the walls of Nagahama Castle are still a bit rough, it's been so long that I can hardly wait to see the two of you. Please tell Mother to start preparations to move here soon.

With such a short note, one could hardly have imagined what was going on, but actually a number of letters had been passing back and forth between husband and wife since the New Year. Hideyoshi had no leisure at all. He had been campaigning in the mountains of northern Omi for many months, and having to fight battles here and there, even when he did have some small respite he was soon sent running off to some other place.

Hideyoshi's services had been unsurpassed during the invasion of Odani. Nobunaga awarded him by granting him his own castle for the first time, and a hundred eighty thousand bushels of the former Asai domain. Until then he had only been a general, but in one leap he joined the ranks of the provincial lords. At the same time, Nobunaga awarded him a new surname: Hashiba.

Hashiba Hideyoshi came into prominence that fall and now stood shoulder to shoulder with the other veteran Oda generals. He was not satisfied with his new castle at Odani, however; the castle was a defensive one, good for retreating into and withstanding siege, but not a suitable base for an offensive. Three leagues to the south, on the shore of Lake Biwa, he found a better place to reside: a village by the name of Nagahama. Receiving Nobunaga's permission, he began construction immediately. By spring the white-railed keep, the sturdy walls, and the iron gates had been completed.

Hachisuka Hikoemon had been given the task of escorting Hideyoshi's wife and mother from Sunomata, and he arrived from Nagahama a few days after Nene had received Hideyoshi's letter. Nene and her mother-in-law were carried in lacquer palanquins, and their escort consisted of one hundred attendants.

Hideyoshi's mother had asked Nene to pass through Gifu and to ask for an audience with Lord Nobunaga to thank him for the many favors he had bestowed upon them. Nene felt this duty to be a heavy responsibility and considered it to be an ordeal. She was sure that if she went up to Gifu Castle and presented herself alone before Lord Nobunaga, she would be able to do nothing but sit and quake.

Nevertheless, the day came and, leaving her mother-in-law at the inn, she went alone to the castle, bringing gifts from Sunomata. At the castle she seemed to forget all of her anxiety. Once there, she looked up to her lord for the first time and, contrary to her expectations, found that he was completely open-minded and affable.

"You must have really exerted yourself, taking care of the castle for such a long time and looking after your mother-in-law. More than that, you must have been very lonely," Nobunaga said with such familiarity that she realized that her own family was in some way connected to Nobunaga's. She felt that she could be completely unreserved.

"I feel unworthy to be living peacefully at home while others are out on campaign. Heaven might punish me if I complained of loneliness."

Nobunaga stopped her with a laugh. "No, no. A woman's heart is a woman's heart and you shouldn't have to conceal it. It's by thinking about the loneliness of caring for the household alone that you'll come to a deeper understanding of your husband's good points. Somebody wrote a poem about this; it goes something like, 'Off on a journey the husband understands his wife's value at the snow-laden inn.' I can imagine that Hideyoshi too can hardly wait. Not only that, but the castle at Nagahama is new. Waiting alone during the campaign must have been difficult, but when you meet, you will be like newlyweds again."

Nene blushed all the way to her collar, and prostrated herself. She must have remembered being a new bride. Nobunaga guessed what she was thinking and smiled.

Food and lacquered vermilion sake cups were brought in. Receiving her cup from Nobunaga, Nene sipped her sake gracefully.

"Nene," he said, laughing. Finally able to look at him directly, she raised her eyes, wondering what he would say. Nobunaga spoke suddenly. "Just one thing: don't be jealous."

"Yes, my lord," she answered without really thinking, but she blushed right away. She, too, had heard a rumor about Hideyoshi visiting Gifu Castle in the company of a beautiful woman.

"That's just Hideyoshi. He's not perfect. But then a tea bowl that is too perfect has no charm. Everyone has faults. When an ordinary person has vices, he becomes a source of trouble; but very few men have Hideyoshi's abilities. I've often wondered what kind of woman would choose a man like him. Now I know after meeting you today, that Hideyoshi must love you, too. Don't be jealous. Live in harmony."

How could Nobunaga have understood a woman's heart so well? Although a little frightening, he was a man both her husband and herself could rely upon, She didn't know whether to be pleased or embarrassed.

She returned to her lodgings in the castle town. But what she spoke about most of all to her anxiously waiting mother-in-law was not Nobunaga's admonition about jealousy. "Whenever someone says the name Nobunaga, everyone shakes with fear, so I wondered what kind of person he would be. But there must be very few lords in this country who are as tender as he is. I couldn't imagine how a man who is so refined could turn into the fearsome demon they say he is on horseback. He also knew something about you, and said that you have a wonderful son and should be the happiest person in Japan. He told me that there are very few men like Hideyoshi in the whole country, and that I had chosen a good husband. Why, he even flattered me and told me I had discerning eyes."

The journey of the two women continued peacefully. They crossed through Fuwa and finally looked out from their palanquins at the springtime face of Lake Biwa.


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