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The Mountain of the Golden Flower

Even when he had returned to Hachisuka, Koroku was not about to let Tenzo get away unpunished. He had sent assassins after him and had written to clans in distant provinces to ask his whereabouts. Autumn came, and he still had nothing to show for his efforts. Rumor had it that Tenzo had found refuge with the Takeda clan of Kai. He had presented them with the stolen gun and had entered their service as one of the army of spies and agitators working for the province.

"If he's reached Kai" Koroku muttered bitterly, but for the time being he could nothing but resign himself to waiting.

Soon after, he was visited by a messenger from the retainer of the Oda clan who had invited him to the tea ceremony. The man brought with him the akae water pitcher.

"We know that this has been the cause of considerable trouble in your family, though we bought this famous piece in good faith, we feel that we can no longer keep it. We believe that if you return it to the pottery shop, you will restore the honor of your name."

Koroku took the pitcher, promising he would pay a return visit. In the end he did not go in person, but sent a messenger with gifts: a splendid saddle and gold worth twice much as the pitcher. That same day he summoned Matsubara Takumi and told him to get ready to go on a short trip. Then he went out onto the veranda.

"Monkey!" he called.

Hiyoshi came skipping out from the trees and knelt before Koroku. He had first gone to Futatsudera, but he had come back directly to Hachisuka and settled into his new life. He was quick-witted and would do anything. People made jokes at his expense, but he refrained from doing the same. He was talkative but never insincere. Koroku put him to work in the garden and became quite fond of him. Although Hiyoshi was a servant, he did more than just sweep the grounds. His work kept him close to Koroku, so he was under his master's eye day and night. After sunset he became a guard. Naturally, this kind of assignment was only given to the most trusted men.

"You're to go with Takumi and show him the way to the pottery shop in Shinkawa."

"To Shinkawa?"

"What are you making such a long face for?"

"But"

"I can see you don't want to go, but Takumi is to return the water pitcher to its rightful owner. I thought it would be a good idea if you went along too."

Hiyoshi prostrated himself and touched his forehead to the ground.

Since he had come along as an attendant, when they arrived at Sutejiro's Hiyoshi waited outside. Not knowing what to make of this, his former co-workers came up and stared. He himself seemed to have completely forgotten that some of them had laughed at him and beaten him before he had been sent home. Smiling at everyone, he squatted in the sunshine, waiting for Takumi. Presently, Takumi came out of the house.

The unexpected return of the stolen pitcher made Sutejiro and his wife so happy they were not sure they weren't dreaming. They hastened to arrange their visitor's sandals so he could slip them on easily, then hurried on ahead of him to the gate, where they bowed repeatedly. Ofuku, too, was there, and he was startled to see Hiyoshi.

"We'll try to find the time to come to Hachisuka and pay our respects in person," said Sutejiro. "Please give His Lordship our very best regards. Thank you again for taking the trouble to come all this way." Husband, wife, Ofuku, and all the employees bowed low. Hiyoshi followed Takumi out and waved to them as he left.

As they walked past the Komyo hills, he wondered sadly, How's my aunt in Yabuyama? And my poor sick uncle? He may be dead already. They were close to Nakamura, and naturally he thought of his mother and sister. He would have liked nothing better than to run over for a moment and see them, but the vow he had made on that frosty night stopped him. He still had done nothing to make his mother happy. As he turned reluctantly away from Nakamura, he met a man in the uniform of a foot soldier.

"Say, aren't you Yaemon's son?"

"And who are you, may I ask?"

"You're Hiyoshi, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"My, you've gotten big! My name is Otowaka. I was a friend of your father. We served in the same regiment under Lord Oda Nobuhide."

"I remember you now! Have I really gotten that big?"

"Ah, I wish your poor dead father could see you now."

Tears came to Hiyoshi's eyes. "Have you seen my mother lately?" he asked.

"I haven't been to the house, but I go to Nakamura from time to time and hear news. She seems to be working as hard as usual."

"She's not sick, is she?"

"Why don't you go see for yourself?"

"I can't go home until I become a great man."

"Just go and show your face. She's your mother, after all."

Hiyoshi wanted to cry. He looked away. When he felt all right again, Otowaka was already walking away in the opposite direction. Takumi had moved on, and was some disance ahead.

* * *

The lingering summer heat had finally faded; the mornings and evenings felt like autumn, and the leaves of the taro plants were lush and full-grown.

"This moat hasn't been dredged for five years at least," Hiyoshi muttered. "We're forever practicing horsemanship and learning spear techniques, and we let mud pile up atour very feet! That's no good." Having returned from the bamboo cutter's house, he was inspecting the mansion's old moat. "What's a moat for, anyway? I'll have to bring this the master's attention."

Hiyoshi tested the depth of the water with a bamboo pole. The surface of the water was covered by water plants, so no one took much notice; but because fallen leaves and mud had accumulated over the years, the moat was not really very deep anymore. After testing the depth in two or three places, he threw away the pole. He was about to cross the bridge to the side gate when someone called out, "Master Half-pint." This was not a reference to his height, but the customary way to address a servant of a provincial clan

"Who are you?" Hiyoshi asked of a hungry-looking man sitting under an oak tree, hugging his knees. He wore a dirty gray kimono with a bamboo flute stuck in the sash.

"Come here a moment." The man waved him over. He was a komuso, one of the mendicant flute-playing monks who came to the village now and then. Like the rest, this one was dirty and unshaven, and carried a bamboo flute in a reed mat slung over his shoulder. Some of them went from village to village like Zen monks, attracting peoples attention by ringing a hand bell.

"Alms for a monk? Or are you too busy thinking of your next meal?"

"No." Hiyoshi was about to make fun of him, but knowing how tough the life of a traveler could be, he offered instead to bring him food if he was hungry and medicine he was sick.

Shaking his head, the man looked up at Hiyoshi and laughed. "Well, won't you sit down?"

"I prefer to stand, thanks. What's on your mind?"

"Are you in service here?"

"Not really." Hiyoshi shook his head. "I get my meals but I'm not a member of the household."

"Hm Do you work in the back, or in the main house?"

"I sweep the garden."

"A guard of the inner garden, eh? You must be one of Master Koroku's favorites?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Is he at home now?"

"He's out."

"That's a shame," the monk mumbled. He looked disappointed. "Will he be back today?"

Hiyoshi thought there was something suspicious about the man and he hesitated, thinking it best to choose his answers carefully.

"Is he coming back?" the man asked again.

Hiyoshi said, "I'll bet you're a samurai. If you're nothing but a monk, you must be a real novice."

Startled, the man stared intently at Hiyoshi. At length he asked, "Why do you think I'm either a samurai or a novice?"

Hiyoshi answered casually, "It's obvious. Although your skin is tanned, the underside of your fingers are white, and your ears are fairly clean. As for proof that you're a samurai, you're sitting cross-legged on the mat, warrior-style, as if you were still wearing armor. A beggar or monk would bend his back and slump forward. Simple, isn't it?"

"Hm you're right." The man got up off the mat without taking his eyes off Hiyoshi for even a second. "You have very keen eyes. I've gone through many border posts and checkpoints in enemy territory, and no one's caught on to me yet."

"There are as many fools as wise men in the world, wouldn't you say? Anyway, what do you want with my master?"

The man lowered his voice. "The truth is, I've come from Mino."

"Mino?"

"If you were to mention Namba Naiki, a retainer to Saito Dosan, Master Koroku would understand. I wanted to see him and leave quickly without anyone knowing, but if he's not here, there's nothing to be done. I'd better keep to the village during the day and come back this evening. If he returns, tell him what I said privately."

Naiki started to walk away. But Hiyoshi called him back, saying, "It was a lie."

"Huh?"

"That he's away. I said that because I didn't know who you were. He's at the riding grounds."

"Ah, so he is here."

"Yes. I'll take you to him."

"You're pretty sharp, aren't you?"

"In a military household, it's only natural to be cautious. Should I assume that the men in Mino are impressed by this sort of thing?"

"No, you should not!" Naiki said, annoyed.

Following the moat, they crossed the vegetable patch, and taking the path that went behind the wood, they came to the wide riding grounds.

The earth was dry, and dust rose into the sky. The men of Hachisuka were training hard. They were not just practicing riding. In one maneuver, they drew up stirrup-to-stirrup and exchanged blows with staves just as if they were fighting in a real battle.

"Wait here," Hiyoshi instructed Naiki.

Having observed the training session, Koroku wiped the sweat from his brow and went to the rest hut for a drink.

"Some hot water, sir?" Hiyoshi ladled out some hot water and diluted it a bit to cool it. He took the cup and, kneeling, placed it before Koroku's camp stool. Hiyoshi drew nearer and whispered, "A messenger has come from Mino in secret. Shall I bring him here? Or will you go to him?"

"From Mino?" Koroku immediately got up. "Monkey, lead the way. Just where did you leave him?"

"On the other side of the forest."

There was no official treaty between the Saito of Mino and the Hachisuka, but for many years they had been bound by a secret alliance to help one another in emergencies. In return, the Hachisuka received a handsome annual stipend from Mino.

Koroku was surrounded by powerful neighborsthe Oda of Owari, the Tokugawa of Mikawa, and the Imagawa of Surugabut he had never sworn allegiance to any of them. He owed his independence to the watchful eyes of the lord of Inabayama Castle, Saito Dosan. Their territories being separated by some distance, the reason the Hachisuka and the Saito had entered into such an alliance was not clear.

One story was that Masatoshi, Koroku's predecessor, had rescued a man close death in front of the Hachisuka mansion. He seemed to be a wandering swordsman following the rigorous discipline of the martial arts. Feeling sorry for him, Masatoshi h taken him in and given him the best medical care. After the man had recovered, Masatoshi had even given him some traveling money.

"I won't forget this," the man swore. On the day of his departure he pledged, "When I've made my fortune, I will send you word and repay you for your kindness." The name that he left with them was Matsunami Sokuro.

Several years later a letter had arrived, bearing the signature Lord Saito Dosan. To their surprise, it was from the man whom they had known as Sokuro. The alliance was an old one, passed on from one generation to the next. So, as soon as Koroku knew that the secret messenger was from Saito Dosan, he hurried out to meet him.

There in the shadows of the forest, the two men exchanged greetings, then, looking each other in the eye, each man raised his open palm to his chest, as if in prayer.

"I am Hachisuka Koroku."

"I am Namba Naiki of Inabayama."

As a young man, Dosan had studied Buddhism at Myokakuji Temple. This experience had led him to use the secret Buddhist terms and signs he had learned in temples and monasteries as passwords among his men.

Once they had finished these formalities and authenticated their identities, the two men felt more at their ease and talked freely. Koroku ordered Hiyoshi to stand guard and to let absolutely no one pass, and he and Naiki walked deeper into the forest. Whatever the two men talked about, or whatever secret documents Naiki might have brought with him, were, of course, not revealed to Hiyoshi, nor did he want to know. He stood faithfully at the edge of the forest, keeping watch. When he had a task to perform, he did it: if he was to sweep the garden, he swept it; if he was to stand guard, he stood guard. He did a thorough job, whatever it was. Unlike other men, he was able to find pleasure in any job that he was given, but this was not simply because he was born poor. Rather, he saw the work at hand as a preparation for the next task. He was convinced that this was the way he would one day realize his ambitions.

What do I have to do to become somebody in the world? This was a question often asked himself. Some had pedigree and lineage, but not he. Others had money and power, but Hiyoshi did not have these, either. Well, how am I going to make my fortune? The question depressed him because he was so short, and no healthier than the next man. He had no learning to speak of, and his intelligence was only average. What in the world did he have going for him? Faithfulnessthat was all he could come up with. He wasn't going to be faithful in some things and not in others, he was determined to be faithful in all things. He would hold on to his faithfulness because he had nothing else to give.

All or nothing! That was how far he had to go. He would pursue any job to the end, just as though the gods themselves had given him a mission. Whether it was sweeping the garden, being a sandal bearer, or cleaning out the stables, he would put everything he had into it. For the sake of his ambitions, he resolved not to be idle now. To try to separate himself from the present was nonsense in terms of the future.

The small birds of the forest chirped and twittered above Hiyoshi's head. But he did not see the fruit in the trees at which the birds were pecking. When Koroku finally emerged from the forest, he was in high spirits. His eyes were fired by ambition. And his face, which would become strained when he heard about problems, was still flushed by some important news.

"Where is the monk?" asked Hiyoshi.

"He took another path out of the forest." Koroku looked hard at Hiyoshi and said, "Keep this to yourself."

"Of course, sir."

"By the way, Namba Naiki praised you to the skies."

"Really?"

"Someday I'm going to promote you. I hope you decide to stay with us forever!"

Night fell, and the principal members of the clan met in Koroku's residence. The secret council lasted into the small hours. That night, too, Hiyoshi stood beneath the stars in the role of faithful guard.

The strictest secrecy was maintained about the contents of the message from Saito Dosan, the substance being revealed only to the key men. But in the days following the nighttime council, several of Koroku's retainers began to disappear from Hachisuka. They were a select group, the ablest and shrewdest, and they left the village in disguisebound for Inabayama, it was whispered.

Koroku's younger brother, Shichinai, was one of those chosen to go undercover in Inabayama. Hiyoshi was ordered to accompany him.

"Are we going on a scouting mission? Is there going to be a battle?" he asked.

"Never mind," was the curt reply. "Just keep quiet and come along with me." Shichinai would say nothing more. Lower-ranking members of the household, even the kitchen workers, called him "Master Pockmark," but only behind his back. He made them feel ill at ease, and they detested him. He drank heavily, was arrogant, and had none of the warmheartedness of his elder brother. Hiyoshi quite frankly felt the man was disgusting, but he did not complain about the assignment. He had been chosen because Koroku trusted him. Hiyoshi had not yet asked to become a member of the clan, but he had agreed to follow orders faithfully. He was ready and willing to serve Shichinaieven this Master Pockmarkto the end, if need be.

On the day of their departure, Shichinai changed his appearance right down to the way he tied his hair. He would be traveling incognito, disguised as an oil merchant from Kiyosu. Hiyoshi changed back into the itinerant needle peddler of the previous summer The two of them were going to be chance traveling companions on the road to Mino.

"Monkey, when we come to the checkpoints, we'd better go through separately."

"All right."

"You're a blabbermouth, so try to keep your mouth shut, whatever they ask you.'

"Yes, sir."

"If you give yourself away, I'll pretend I don't know you and leave you there."

There were many checkpoints along the road. Despite the close ties of kinship that should have made the Oda and the Saito allies, in reality they were exactly the opposite. As a result, both sides were particularly vigilant at their common border. But even when they had crossed into Mino proper, the atmosphere of suspicion did not dissipate, and Hiyoshi asked Shichinai why.

"You're always asking the obvious! Lord Saito Dosan and his son Yoshitatsu have been at odds for years." Shichinai did not seem to be surprised by the enmity between two factions within a single family. Hiyoshi was tempted to question Shichinai's intelligence. It was not as though examples were lacking, even in ancient times, of fathers and sons in the warrior class taking up arms against one another, but there had to be good reasons.

"Why is there a bad relationship between Lord Dosan and Lord Yoshitatsu?" Hiyoshi asked again.

"Don't be a nuisance! If you want to know, ask somebody else." Shichinai clucked his tongue and refused to say anything more. Before arriving in Mino, Hiyoshi had worried that he would be forced to do something against his better judgment.

Inabayama was a picturesque castle town nestling among small mountains. The autumn tints of Mount Inabayama were misty under a fine rain, but there was a hint of sunlight shining through. Autumn was deepening, and one could look at the mountain from morning till night and never tire of it. It looked as if the cliff had been covered with a golden brocade, a phenomenon that had given Inabayama its second name: the Mountain of the Golden Flower. It soared up from the Nagara River, a splendid backdrop the town and fields, and Hiyoshi's eyes grew wide when he saw on its peak the white walls of the castle, small in the distance, crouching like a solitary white bird.

The only way up from the town below was by a tortuous path, and the castle had a plentiful supply of water. Hiyoshi was impressed. It was the kind of stronghold that was difficult to attack and unlikely to fall. Then he reminded himself that a province was not held by castles alone.

Shichinai took a room in a merchants' inn on a street in the prosperous part of town. He gave Hiyoshi only a little money and told him to stay at one of the cheap lodging houses in the back streets.

"After a while I'll give you your orders," he said. "People are going to be suspicious if you're idle, so until I'm ready for you, go out every day with your needles."

Hiyoshi gave a respectful bow, took the money, and did as he was told. The lodging house was not very clean, but he was more at ease being on his own. He still could not imagine what he was going to be ordered to do. There were many different kinds of travelers staying at the lodging house: actors, mirror polishers, and loggers. He was familiar with their unique smell and with the fleas and lice they boarded with.

Hiyoshi went out every day to sell needles, and on his return he brought back salted vegetables and rice, for everyone did his own cooking. The stoves were available to those who paid for the firewood. Seven days passed. Still no word from Shichinai. And wasn't Shichinai himself idle every day? Hiyoshi felt as though he had been abandoned.

Then one day, while Hiyoshi was walking down a side street in a residential area, plying his trade, a man with a leather quiver at his side and a couple of old bows on his shoulder came walking toward him, calling out in a voice far louder than Hiyoshi's, "Old bows repaired! Old bows repaired!"

When he got up close, the bow mender stopped, his eyes widening with surprise. "Why, it's Monkey, isn't it? When did you get here, and who are you with?"

Hiyoshi was no less surprised. The bow mender was Nitta Hikoju, another of Koroku's men.

"Master Hikoju, what are you doing mending bows in Inabayama?"

"Hm, I'm not the only one. There are at least thirty or forty of us. But I didn't expect to find you here."

"I came seven days ago with Master Shichinai, but all he told me to do was go out and sell my needles, so that's what I've been doing. What's it all about, anyway?"

"Don't you know yet?"

"He wouldn't tell me a thing. And there's nothing worse for a man than to have to do something without knowing why."

"Yes, I can imagine."

"Surely you know what's going on."

"If I didn't, would I be walking around mending bows?"

"Please, can't you tell me anything?"

"Hm, Shichinai's unkind. You go around without knowing why your life is at risk. But we can't stand and talk in the middle of the street."

"Our lives are in danger?"

"If you were caught, there'd be a risk of the plan being exposed, but for all our sakes, maybe I should explain so you'll have some idea of what it's all about."

"I'd appreciate that very much."

"But we're too conspicuous standing out here."

"How about behind that shrine?"

"Yeah, and I'm hungry. Why don't we have lunch?"

Hikoju walked ahead, and Hiyoshi followed. The shrine was surrounded by woods, and very quiet. They opened their lunches wrapped in bamboo leaves, and started to eat. The ginkgo leaves above them danced in the sunlight. As they looked through the bright yellow foliage, they saw Mount Inabayama clad in the flaming red leaves of departing autumn. The castle on the peak soared into the blue sky above: the pride of the Saito clan and the symbol of its power.

"That is our objective." Hikoju pointed at Inabayama Castle with his chopsticks, their tips sticky with rice. They were both looking at the same castle, but each saw it quite differently. Hiyoshi's mouth fell open as he stared blankly at the tips of the chopsticks.

"Are the Hachisuka going to storm the castle?"

"Don't be stupid!" Hikoju snapped his chopsticks in two and threw them on the ground. "Lord Dosan's son, Yoshitatsu, holds the castle, and from there he controls the neighborhood and the roads to Kyoto and the east. Within its walls he drills his troops and stores new weapons. The Oda, Imagawa, and Hojo are no match for him. So what could the Hachisuka do? Don't ask such stupid questions. I was going to let you in on plans, but now I don't know whether I should."

"I'm sorry. I won't say anything else." Scolded, Hiyoshi fell meekly silent.

"There isn't anybody around here, is there?" The bow mender looked around and then licked his lips. "I suppose you've heard about the alliance between our clan and Lord Dosan." Hiyoshi limited his reply to a nod. "Father and son have been at odds for years. Hikoju told Hiyoshi about the feud and the resulting chaos in Mino.

Dosan had once traveled under other names, one of which was Matsunami Sokuro. He was an experienced man: he had been an oil merchant, a wandering swordsman, and even a novice in a temple. Eventually he had risen from the lowly position of oil merchant and seized the province of Mino with his bare hands. To do this, he had killed his 1ord, Toki Masayori, and driven his heir, Yorinari, into exile. He had later taken one of Tokis concubines. There were countless stories about his brutality and the atrocities he had committed. If more proof were needed of his astuteness, once he had become master of Mino, he had not ceded a single inch of land to his enemies.

But the workings of fate are terrifying. Could it be that what happened next was divine retribution? He adopted Yoshitatsu, the son of his former lord's concubine. But he worried about whether the child was his own or Lord Toki's. As Yoshitatsu grew up, Dosan's doubts became stronger with each passing day.

Yoshitatsu was an imposing man, who stood over six feet tall. When he was made lord of Inabayama, his father moved into Sagiyama Castle, on the other side of the Nagara River. On opposite banks of the river, the destinies of father and son were in the of the gods. Yoshitatsu was in his prime and he ignored the man he assumed to be his fathr. The aging Dosan, ever more suspicious, cursed Yoshitatsu and finally disinherited him, with the idea of putting his second son, Magoshiro, in Yoshitatsu's place. Yoshitatsu, however, was quick to catch on to the plan.

But then Yoshitatsu contracted leprosy and became known as "the Leper Lord." He was a child of fate and eccentric, but also resourceful and brave. Yoshitatsu set up forts to guard against attack from Sagiyama, and never turned down an opportunity to fight. Determined to rid himself of this despicable "Leper Lord"his own sonDosan resigned himself to spill blood. Hikoju took a deep breath. "Dosan's retainers are, of course, known hereabouts. We were asked to set fire to the castle town."

"Fire the town!"

"It wouldn't do any good just to suddenly set fires. Before doing that, we're to spread rumors, and when Yoshitatsu and his retainers at Inabayama are unsettled, we pick a windy night and turn the castle town into a sea of flame. Then Dosan's forces will cross the river and attack."

"I see." Hiyoshi nodded with a grown-up look. He showed neither admiration nor disapproval. "So we've been sent here to spread rumors and commit arson."

"Correct."

"So in the end, we're just agitators, aren't we? We're here to stir up the people."

Well, yes, you could put it that way."

Isn't being an agitator the work of the lowest outcasts?"

"There's nothing we can do about it. We Hachisuka have been dependent on Lord Dosan for many years now." Hikoju saw things very simply. Hiyoshi looked at him. A ronin was always a ronin, but he had trouble getting used to the idea. Although he got his rice from the table of a ronin, he considered his own life to be precious, and he did not intend to throw it away heedlessly.

Why did Master Shichinai come?"

He's here to direct operations. With thirty or forty men entering the area separately, you need someone to coordinate and supervise them."

I see.

So now you know what it's all about."

Uh-huh. But there's one more thing I don't understand. What about me?"

Hm. You?"

What do you suppose I'll have to do? I've had no orders from Master Shichinai so far.

Perhaps because you're small and agile, you'll be given the job of setting the fires on the night when there's a wind."

I see. An arsonist."

Since we've come to this town on secret orders, we can't afford to be careless. When we pose as bow menders and needle sellers we have to be careful and watch what we say."

If they learn about our plan, will they start looking for us right away?"

Of course. If Yoshitatsu's samurai get even a hint of our plans, there'll be a massacre. If were caught, it'll be horrible, whether it's just you or all of us." At first, Hikoju had thought it too bad that Hiyoshi knew nothing; now he seemed suddenly uneasy about the possibility that the secret might leak from Monkey's mouth. Hiyoshi read this in his face. Dont worry. I've gotten used to this sort of thing in my travels."

You won't let anything slip?" Hikoju asked tensely. "This is enemy territory, you know."

Well, we should avoid looking suspicious." His back had gotten stiff, and he slapped it two or three times as he stood up. "Monkey, where are you staying?"

In the alley just behind the inn where Master Shichinai has a room."

Is that so? Well, I'll drop by there one of these nights. Be especially careful around the other lodgers." Shouldering his bows, Nitta Hikoju headed off in the direction of the town.

Sitting in the shrine grounds, Hiyoshi gazed at the faraway white walls of the castle above the ginkgo trees. Now that he knew more about the conflict within the Saito family and the evil it had bred, neither the ironlike walls nor the commanding position of the escarpment seemed to have any power at all in his eyes. Who will be the next lord of the castle? he wondered. Dosan won't come to a happy end, either, that's for sure. What kind of strength can there be in a land where master and retainers are enemies? How can the people have confidence when the lords of the province, father and son, distrust and plot against each other?

Mino was a fertile area backed by mountains, at a major crossroads between the capital and the provinces. It was blessed with natural resources, agriculture and industry thrived, the water was clean, and the women beautiful. But it was rotten! He did not have time to think about the worm that was wriggling at its rotten core. His mind jumped to the question of who would be the next lord of Mino.

What troubled Hiyoshi most was the part being played by Hachisuka Koroku, the man from whom he received his meals. Ronin did not have a good reputation, but from serving Koroku, he knew he was an upright man; he had lineage, albeit distant, and one could say his character was superior. Hiyoshi had felt there was nothing to be ashamed of in bowing to this man daily and obeying his orders, but now he had second thoughts.

Dosan had long aided the Hachisuka financially, and their friendship was a strong one. It was unthinkable that Koroku would not know of Dosan's character, or that he could be unaware of his treachery and atrocities. Nevertheless, he was an agitator in the struggle between father and son. No matter how many times he went over the matter in his mind, Hiyoshi could not agree to take part in this. There were thousands of blind men in this world. Could Koroku be one of the blindest? As his feelings of disgust grew stronger, all he wanted to do was run away.

Toward the end of the tenth month, Hiyoshi left the lodging house to go out and peddle his wares. On a corner of one of the back streets, he ran into Hikoju, whose nose was bright red from the dry wind. The bow mender drew up to him and pressed a letter into his hand. "After you read this, chew it up and spit it into the river," he warned. Then, pretending not to know him, Hikoju turned right, while Hiyoshi walked off in the opposite direction. Hiyoshi knew it was a letter from Shichinai. His anxiety hadn't left him, and his heart began to pound.

I've got to get away from these people, he realized. He had been over the problem any number of times, but running away was, in the long run, more dangerous than staying put. He was alone in the boardinghouse, but he took it for granted that his comings and goings and all his actions were continually watched. Probably the spies themselves were being observed. They were all tied to one another like links in a chain. It looks like they're really going ahead with it, he concluded, his mood darkening. Perhaps his reluctance came from timidity, but he could not convince himself he should become a brutal agitator who would confuse people, stir up trouble, and turn the town into an inferno.

He had lost all respect for Koroku. He did not want to serve Dosan, nor did he want anything to do with Yoshitatsu. If he was going to be anyone's ally, he would be the townspeople's. His sympathies lay very much with them, and especially with the parents and their children. They were always the main victims of war. He was too anxious to read the letter immediately.

As he walked along, giving his usual cry, "Needles! Needles from the capital!" he purposely wound his way toward a side street in a residential area where he would not be seen. There he stopped by a small river.

"Oh, damn, I can't get through here!" he said in a deliberately loud voice. He looked around. Luck was with him. No one was in sight. But just to be sure, he faced the small river and while relieving himself, looked around, checking out the area. Then he quietly took out the letter from the folds of his clothing and read:

Tonight, at the Hour of the Dog, if the wind is from the south or west, come to the woods behind the Jozaiji Temple. If the wind is from the north or stops altogether, stay away.

He finished reading, tore the letter into small pieces, and rolled them into a small ball, which he then chewed into a wad.

Needle seller!"

Startled, he had no time to spit the thing into the river. He palmed the paper wad in his clenched fist.

Who is it?"

Over here. We'd like to buy some needles."

There was nobody in sight, and Hiyoshi couldn't tell where the voice came from.

Needle seller, over here!"

On the other side of the road was an embankment and, atop it, double mud walls. A small wicker gate in the wall opened and a young servant stuck his head out. Hiyoshi answered hesitantly. Any samurai residence in this neighborhood must be that of a retainer of the Saito clan. But of which side? There would be nothing to worry about if this one belonged to a retainer of Dosan, but if it belonged to Yoshitatsu's faction, things could nasty.

There's a person here who'd like some needles."

Hiyoshi's uneasiness intensified, but he had no choice. "Thank you," he said distractedly. Following the servant, he went in through the wicker gate and walked around an artificial hill in what seemed to be a rear garden. The mansion probably belonged to an important retainer. The main house was separated from a number of annexes. Slowing down, Hiyoshi took in the grandeur of the buildings and the neatness of the rocks and and streams. Who could want to buy needles from him in a place like this? The servants words suggested that it was a member of the owner's family, but that did not make sense. In a mansion this imposing, the lady of the house or her daughter wouldn't be buying needles for herself. And, in any case, there would be no reason at all to call in a peddler who hawked his wares in the street.

Wait here a moment," the servant said, leaving him in a corner of the garden. A two-story building with rough plaster walls, well removed from the main house, caught Hiyoshis attention. The first floor seemed to be a study, the top floor a library. The young servant called up, "Master Mitsuhide, I brought the man in."

Mitsuhide appeared at a square window much like an opening in a battlement. He was a young man of twenty-four or twenty-five, with a fair complexion and intelligent eyes. Holding some books in his hand, he stuck his head out of the window. "I'll come down. Take him to the veranda," he said, and disappeared inside.

Hiyoshi looked up and noticed for the first time that someone could have seen him over the wall while he was standing at the river reading the letter. He was sure he must been observed, and that this Mitsuhide had become suspicious and was about to question him. Hiyoshi thought that if he did not make up some story, he would be in trouble. Just as he was preparing an explanation, the young servant waved him over and said, The master's nephew is coming, so wait by the veranda. And mind your manners."

Hiyoshi knelt down a little way from the veranda, his eyes downcast. After a while, when nobody came out, he looked up. The number of books inside the house amazed him. They were everywhere, on and around the desk and the bookshelves, and in the other rooms on the first and second floors. Whether it's the master or his nephew, he thought, someone seems to be quite a scholar. Books were a rare sight for Hiyoshi. Looking around, he noticed a couple of other things: between the horizontal timbers of the house frame hung a fine spear, and a musket was propped against the wall in an alcove.

Finally the man entered the room and quietly sat down in front of the desk. Resting his chin on his hands, he looked fixedly at Hiyoshi, as though he were concentrating on some Chinese characters in a book. "Hello, there."

Hiyoshi said, "I'm a needle seller. Are you interested in buying some needles, sir?"

Mitsuhide nodded. "Yes, I am. But first there's something I'd like to ask you. Are you here to sell needles or to spy?"

"To sell needles, of course."

"Well, then, what brought you into an alleyway in a residential area like this?"

"I thought it was a shortcut."

"You're lying." Mitsuhide turned his body a little to the side. "When I saw you, I could tell you were a seasoned traveler and peddler. So you should have sense enough to know whether or not you could sell needles at a samurai residence."

"I have sold them, though rarely"

"I can imagine it's rarely."

"But it can be done."

"Well, let's put that aside for the moment. What were you reading in a deserted place like this?"

"Huh?"

"You furtively took out a piece of paper, thinking that no one was around. But anywhere there is life, there are eyes. And things, too, speak to those who have ears to hear. What were you reading?"

"I was reading a letter."

"Some sort of secret correspondence?"

"I was reading a letter from my mother," he said very matter-of-factly. Mitsuhide looked searchingly at him. "Is that so? A letter from your mother?"

"Yes."

"In that case, let me see it. According to the laws of the castle, when you come across a suspicious person, he's to be arrested and taken to the castle. As evidence, let me see the letter from your mother, or I'll have to hand you over to the authorities."

"I ate it."

"You did what?"

"Unfortunately, after I read it, I ate it, sir."

"You ate it?"

"Yes, that's what I did," Hiyoshi continued earnestly. "To me, just by my being alive, my mother is to be more respected than the gods or Buddhas. Therefore"

Mitsuhide let out a thundering cry, "Hold your tongue! I suppose you chewed it up because it was a secret communication. That alone makes you a suspicious character!"

"No! No! You're mistaken!" Hiyoshi said, waving his hands. "To carry a letter from my mother, to whom I'm more grateful than to the gods and Buddhas, and in the end blow my nose on it and toss it away in the street, where it would be trampled under peopless feet, would be impious and a crime. This is the way I think, and it's a habit of mine always to eat them. I'm not lying. It's natural for someone to miss his mother so much that he'd want to eat the letters, coming from so far away."

Mitsuhide was sure it was all a lie, but even so, here was a boy who lied much better than the common run. And he sympathized with him because he himself had left his mother behind at home.

Although it's a lie, it's not a base lie. And though it's nonsense to talk about eating a letter from one's mother, there's no mistaking that even this little monkey-faced lad must have parents, thought Mitsuhide, at the same time feeling sorry for his unpolished and uneducated adversary. Nevertheless, if this ignorant, naive youth were the tool of an agitator, he could be as dangerous as a wild animal. He wasn't the kind of person to send off to the castle, and it would be a shame just to kill him on the spot. He thought about just letting Hiyoshi go, but he kept a sharp eye on him while trying to decide how to handle matter.

"Mataichi!" he called. "Is Mitsuharu around?"

"I think so, sir."

"Tell him I don't want to be a bother, but please ask if he can come here for a minute."

"Yes, sir." Mataichi ran off.

Shortly after, Mitsuharu came from the house, walking with great strides. He was younger than Mitsuhide, perhaps eighteen or nineteen. He was the heir to the master of the house, the lay priest Akechi Mitsuyasu, and he and Mitsuhide were cousins. Mitsuhide's family name was also Akechi. He lived with his uncle and spent his days in study. It not that he was financially dependent on his uncle; he had come to Inabayama because his home in provincial Ena was far removed from the centers of culture and politics. His uncle often said to his son, "Look at Mitsuhide and study a little." Mitsuhide was a serious scholar. Even before he had come to Inabayama, he had already traveled extensively, touring the country from the capital to the western provinces. He had kept company with traveling swordsmen and sought out knowledge, studied current events, and willingly accepted life's hardships. When he got around to studying firearms, he made a special trip to the free city of Sakai and eventually made so great a contribution to the defenses and military organization of Mino that everyone, beginning with his uncle, respected him as a genius of the new learning.

"How can I be of assistance, Mitsuhide?"

"Well, it's nothing really." His tone was deferential.

"What is it?"

"I want you to do something for me, if you think it's right."

The two men went outside and, standing right next to Hiyoshi, discussed what to do with him. After hearing the details from Mitsuhide, Mitsuharu said, "You mean this nobody? He looked Hiyoshi over casually. "If you think he's suspicious, turn him over to Mataichi. If he's tortured a bit, beaten with a broken bow, say, he'll talk soon enough. It should be easy."

"No." Mitsuhide took another look at Hiyoshi. "I don't think he's the type who'll talk with that sort of treatment. And I feel sorry for him, somehow."

"If he's taken you in and made you feel sorry for him, you're not likely to get him to talk. Give him to me for four or five days. I'll lock him up in the storage shed. He'll soon be spitting out the truth when he gets hungry."

"Sorry to trouble you with this," Mitsuhide said.

"Shall I tie him up?" Mataichi said, twisting Hiyoshi's arm.

"Wait!" said Hiyoshi, trying to free himself from Mataichi's grip. He looked up at Mitsuhide and Mitsuharu. "You just said that even if I was beaten, I wouldn't tell the truth. All you have to do is ask me and I'll tell you everything. Even if you don't ask! I can't stand being shut up in a dark place."

"You're ready to talk?"

"Yes."

"All right. I'll do the questioning," said Mitsuharu.

"Go ahead."

"What about" But Hiyoshi's composure seemed to unnerve Mitsuharu, and he stopped in mid-sentence, muttering, "It's no good! He's a strange one. I wonder if he's quite right in the head. He must be playing a game with us." Glancing at Mitsuhide, he gave a bitter laugh. But Mitsuhide was not laughing. He was looking at Hiyoshi with an anxious look on his face. Mitsuhide and Mitsuharu took turns questioning him, as though they were humoring a spoiled child.

Hiyoshi said, "Well, then, I'll tell you what's being planned for tonight, but since I'm not part of their gang and don't have anything to do with them, can you guarantee my life?"

"Fair enough. Taking your life wouldn't be much of an accomplishment. Something's up, eh?"

"There's going to be a big fire tonight, if the wind is right."

"Where?"

"I don't know exactly, but the ronin staying at the lodging house discussed it in secret. Tonight, if the wind comes from the south or west, they're going to meet in the woods near the Jozaiji, split up, and set fire to the town."

"What?" Mitsuharu's mouth fell open. Mitsuhide swallowed hard, finding it difficult to believe what he had just heard.

Hiyoshi, ignoring their reaction to what he had just said, swore that he didn't know any more, just what he had heard whispered by ronin who happened to be his fellow lodgers. All he wanted to do was sell his stock of needles and return to his hometown of Nakamura as soon as possible, to see his mother's face.

After the color had returned to their faces, Mitsuhide and Mitsuharu stood aghast for a moment. At last, Mitsuhide gave an order.

"All right, we'll let this one go, but not before nightfall. Mataichi, take him and give him some food."

The wind that had been blowing all day began to freshen. It was coming from the southwest.

"Mitsuhide, what do you suppose they'll do? The wind's blowing from the west."

Mitsuharu's eyes were filled with worry as he looked up at the clouds scudding past. Mitsuhide silently sat down on the veranda of the library. Gazing off into space, he seemed to be concentrating on some complicated problem. "Mitsuharu," he said finally, "has my uncle said anything strange in the past four or five days?"

"Well, nothing that Father's said has struck me as particularly strange."

"Are you sure?"

"Now that you mention it, before he left for Sagiyama Castle this morning, he did say that because relations between Lord Dosan and Lord Yoshitatsu had worsened recently, we might be in for some trouble, though it was difficult to say when. He said that while one should always be prepared, just in case something unexpected happens, the men should prepare their armor and horses."

"He said that this morning?"

"Yes."

"That's it!" Mitsuhide slapped his knee. "He was warning you indirectly that there's going to be a battle tonight. It's common practice for military plots of this kind to be kept secret even from close kin. He must be in on it."

"Will there be a battle tonight?"

"The men meeting tonight at the Jozaiji are probably agents brought in from the outside by Lord Dosan, most likely from Hachisuka."

"So Lord Dosan's made up his mind to drive Lord Yoshitatsu from the castle."

"That's what I think." Mitsuhide, confident that he had guessed right, nodded vigorously, but then he gloomily bit his lip. "I suspect Lord Dosan's plan is not going to work. Lord Yoshitatsu is well prepared. More than that, for father and son to take up arms and spill blood runs contrary to any code of behavior. The gods will punish them! No matter who wins or loses, the blood of kinsmen will flow freely. And it won't increase the Saito clan's territory by one inch. On the contrary, the neighboring provinces will be watching for an opportunity to intervene, and the province will be on the brink of collapse." He let out a long sigh.

Mitsuharu was sunk in silence, pensively studying the dark swirling clouds in the sky. In a fight between two of one's lords, there was nothing a retainer could do. They knew that Mitsuharu's father, Mitsuyasu, a trusted retainer of Dosan, was in the vanguard of the movement to bring about Yoshitatsu's fall.

"We have to stop this unnatural battle by any means at our disposal. That is our duty as loyal retainers. Mitsuharu, you must go immediately to Sagiyama and find your father. And you two together must dissuade Lord Dosan from carrying out his plans."

"Yes, I understand."

"I'll wait until evening, go to Jozaiji, and somehow thwart their schemes. I'm going to stop them, no matter what!"

In the kitchen, three large stoves stood in a row. Huge cauldrons holding several bagfuls of rice sat on the stoves. When the lids were lifted, the starchy water boiled over in clouds of steam. Hiyoshi had worked out that for this amount of rice to be consumed in one sitting, there had to be over a hundred people in the mansion, including the master's family, and his retainers and their dependents. "With all this rice, why can't my mother and sister have enough to fill their stomachs?" He thought of his mother; he thought of rice. The rice made him think of his mother's hunger.

"It's awfully windy tonight." The old man in charge came over and checked the in the stoves. He said to the kitchen helpers who were cooking the rice, "The wind wont let up even after sunset. Watch the fires. And as soon as one pot of rice is ready, start making rice balls."

He was on his way out when he noticed Hiyoshi. He looked at him curiously summoned a servant, "Who's that townsman with a face like a monkey?" he asked. I haven't seen him around before."

"He's in Master Mitsuhide's charge. Mataichi is guarding him so he won't run away

The old man then noticed Mataichi seated on the kindling bin.

"Good work!" he said to Mataichi, without a clue as to what was going on. "Is he under arrest for suspicious behavior?"

"No. I don't know why. Only that the orders came from Master Mitsuhide." Mataichi said as little as he could get away with.

The old man seemed to forget about Hiyoshi and said, "The truth is, Master Mitsuhide has sense and discrimination well beyond his years." The old man admired Mitsuhide and began to sing his praises. "He's much above average, don't you think? Master Mitsuhide's not one of those men who despise learning and brag about how heavy a staff they use, how well they wield a spear on horseback, or how many people they cut down on what battlefield. Whenever I peek into the library, he's lost in study. And he's a great swordsman and strategist too. He'll go far, that's for sure."

Mataichi, proud to hear his master spoken of so highly, chimed in, "It's just as you say. I've been his servant since he was a boy, and there's no kinder master than he. Hes also a good son to his mother, and whether he's studying here or traveling around provinces, he never neglects to write to her."

"It's often the case that by the age of twenty-four or twenty-five, if a man has great courage, he's also a braggart, and if he's gentle, he's a fop," the old man said. "As if hed been born in a stable, he soon forgets what he owes to his parents and leads a selfish life.

"Well, remember he's not just a gentleman," said Mataichi. "He's got a fierce temper too, despite appearances to the contrary. Although it rarely comes to the surface, when he gets mad, there's no holding him back."

"So even though he appears to be gentle, when he gets angry"

"Precisely. Like what happened today."

"Today?"

"In an emergency, when he's thinking over what's right or wrong, he thinks things through to the end. But when he's made his decision, it's like a dam breaking, and he immediately gives orders to his cousin, Master Mitsuharu."

"He's a leader, all righta born general."

"Master Mitsuharu is devoted to Master Mitsuhide, and so he willingly follows his orders. Today he galloped off to Sagiyama castle."

"What do you suppose is going on?"

"I don't know."

'Cook a lot of rice. Make some rice balls for the troops. There might be a battL the middle of the night.' That's what Master Mitsuharu said when he left."

"Preparations for an emergency, huh?"

"I'd be happy if it stops with the preparations, because in a battle between Sagiyama and Inabayama, which side should we fight for? Whichever it is, we'll be shooting our bows at friends and relatives."

"Well, it may not come to that. It seems as though Master Mitsuhide has devised a plan to prevent a battle."

"The gods know I'll pray for his success. If the neighboring clans attack us, I'm ready to fight them right away."

Outside, night had fallen. The sky was pitch black. Gusts of wind came in, and the fire in the mouths of the huge stoves made a slight roaring noise and grew brighter. Hiyoshi, still squatting in front of the stoves, smelled burnt rice.

"Hey! The rice is burning! You're letting the rice burn!"

"Out of the way, you!" the servants said without a word of thanks. After they had dampened the fires in the stoves, one of them climbed a ladder and transferred the rice into a tub. All those who were not busy with something else began making rice balls by th e score. Hiyoshi worked with them, pressing the rice into balls. He helped himself to a couple of moufhfuls, but nobody seemed to mind. Almost in a trance, they went on making rice ball after rice ball, talking as they did so.

"I guess there'll be a battle, eh?"

"Can't they end it without a fight?"

They were making provisions for the troops, but most of them hoped that the stores would not be needed.

At the Hour of the Dog, Mitsuhide called for Mataichi, who went outside but soon came back calling, "Needle seller! Where's the needle seller!"

Hiyoshi jumped up, licking rice grains off of his fingers. He only had to take one step out of the building to gauge the strength of the wind.

"Come along with me. Master Mitsuhide's waiting. And be quick about it."

Hiyoshi followed Mataichi, noticing that he had put on light armor as if he were ready to go off to battle. Hiyoshi had no idea where they were going. At length they went out the central gate and he understood. Going around the rear garden, they came to the front. Outside the gate, a mounted figure was waiting for them.

"Mataichi?" Mitsuhide had on the clothes he had worn that day. He held the reins in his hands and carried a long spear under one arm.

"Yes, sir."

"The needle seller?"

"He's right here."

"The two of you run on ahead."

Turning to Hiyoshi, Mataichi ordered, "Come on, needle seller, let's go."

The two men on foot ran into the pitch black night. Matching their pace, Mitsuhide followed on horseback. They came to a crossroads, and Mitsuhide instructed them to turn right, then left. Finally, Hiyoshi realized that they had reached the gate of the Jozaiji, the meeting place of the Hachisuka men. Mitsuhide dismounted nimbly.

"Mataichi, stay here with the horse," he said, handing him the reins. "Mitsuharu is supposed to come here from Sagiyama Castle in the last half of the Hour of the Dog. If he doesn't make it by the agreed hour, our plan is canceled." Then, with a tragic look on his face, he said, "The town has become the home of warring demons. How can a mere man guess the outcome?" The last of his words were swallowed up by the enveloping gloom.

"Needle seller! You show the way."

"The way to where?" Hiyoshi braced himself against the wind.

"The woods where the scoundrels from Hachisuka are having their meeting."

"Uh, well, 1 don't know where the place is either."

"Even if this is your first time here, I think they know your face well enough."

"Huh?"

"Don't play the innocent."

This is no good, thought Hiyoshi. I didn't fool him at all. Mitsuhide had seen through his lies, and he made no more excuses.

There were no lights in the wood. The wind swept through the leaves, which beat against the great temple roof like spray scouring the gunwales of a ship. The woods behind the temple were like a raging oceanthe trees groaned and the grasses roared.

"Needle seller!"

"Yes, sir."

"Are your comrades here yet?"

"How should I know?"

Mitsuhide sat down on a small stone pagoda at the rear of the temple. "It's nearing the second half of the Hour of the Dog. If you're the only person not accounted for, they'll be on the alert." His spear, caught by the full force of the wind, was right in front of Hiyoshi's feet. "Go show yourself!" Hiyoshi had to admit to himself that Mitsuhide was a step ahead of him from the very start. "Go tell them that Akechi Mitsuhide is waiting here, and that he would like to talk with the leader of the men of Hachisuka."

"Yes, sir." Hiyoshi bowed his head but did not move. "Is it all right if I say this in front of everyone?"

"Yes."

"And that's why you brought me here with you?"

"Yes. Now get going."

"I'll go, but since we may not meet again, I'd like to tell you something."

"Yes?"

"It would be a shame to leave without saying this, because you see me only as a agent of the Hachisuka."

"That's true."

"You're very clever, but your eyes are too sharp, and they go right through the thing they're looking at. When a man hits a nail, he stops where he's supposed to, because going too far is just as bad as not going far enough. Your intelligence is like that. I admit I came to Inabayama with the men from Hachisuka. But my heart's not in itnot at all. I was born in a farming family in Nakamura, and I've done things like selling needles, but haven't reached my goal. I don't intend to spend my life eating cold rice from a ronins table. Neither am I going to work as an agitator for some worthless reward. If, by some chance, we meet again, I'll prove to you what I said about you looking too hard at things. For now, I'll go to Hachisuka Shichinai, give him your message, and leave immediately. So good luck! Take good care of yourself, and study hard."

Mitsuhide listened in silence, then suddenly came out of his reverie. "Needle seller! Wait!" he called.

Hiyoshi had already vanished into the storm. He ran into the black woods without hearing Mitsuhide's call. He ran until he got to a small, level bit of land sheltered from the wind by trees. He could see men all about him, scattered like wild horses in a pasture, some sprawling, some sitting, some standing.

"Who's there?"

"It's me."

"Hiyoshi?"

"Yeah."

"Where have you been? You're the last. Everyone's been worried," scolded one man.

"I'm sorry I'm late," he said as he came up to the group. He was trembling. "Where's Master Shichinai?"

"He's over there. Go and apologize. He's real angry."

Four or five members of the gang stood talking around Shichinai.

"Is that Monkey?" Shichinai asked, looking around. Hiyoshi went over to him and made his excuses for being late.

"What were you up to?"

"During the day I was held prisoner by a retainer of the Saito clan," Hiyoshi admitted.

"What?" Shichinai and all the others stared at him nervously, afraid that their plot had been exposed. "You simpleton!" Without warning, he grabbed Hiyoshi by the collar, yanked him forward, and asked roughly, "Where and by whom were you being held? And did you say anything?"

"I talked."

"You what?"

"If I hadn't talked, I wouldn't be alive. I wouldn't be here now."

"You little bastard!" Shichinai gave Hiyoshi a good shaking. "You fool! You blabbed to save your miserable skin. For that, you're going to be the first victim of tonight's bloodbath!"

Shichinai let go and tried to kick him, but Hiyoshi jumped back agilely and Shichinai missed. The two men closest to Hiyoshi grabbed his arms and twisted them behind his back. Struggling to free his arms, Hiyoshi said in one breath, "Don't lose your heads. Hear me out, even though I was caught and talked. They're retainers of Lord Dosan."

They looked relieved, but also still a little doubtful.

"All right, who were they?"

"It was Akechi Mitsuyasu's house. I wasn't being held by him but by his nephew Mitsuhide."

"Ah, the Akechi hanger-on," someone muttered.

Hiyoshi looked at the man, then moved his eyes over the whole group. "This Master Mitsuhide wants to meet with our leader. He came here with me. He's over there. Master Shichinai, won't you go and meet him?"

"Akechi Mitsuyasu's nephew came here with you?"

"Yes."

"Did you tell Mitsuhide everything about tonight's plan?"

"Even if I hadn't, he would have guessed. He's a genius."

"Why did he come?"

"I don't know. He said only that I should guide him here."

"And so you did?"

"There was nothing else I could do."

As Hiyoshi and Shichinai talked, the men around them swallowed hard as they listened. Finally, Shichinai wound things up with a click of his tongue. He stepped forward and asked, "All right, where is he, this Akechi Mitsuhide?"

Everyone talked at once. It was dangerous for Shichinai to meet the man alon. Someone should go with him. Or they should surround the meeting place and stay hidden.

Just then a voice came from behind: "Men of Hachisuka! I have come to you. I should like to meet with Master Shichinai."

They turned toward the voice in stunned surprise. Mitsuhide had approached unnoticed and was calmly observing them.

Shichinai felt a little confused, but being the leader, he stepped forward.

"Are you Hachisuka Shichinai?" asked Mitsuhide.

"I am," Shichinai replied, his head held high. He was in front of his men, but it was common for ronin not to be humble before samurai who served a lord or warriors c even higher status.

Although Mitsuhide was armed with a spear, he bowed and spoke politely. "It's pleasure to meet you. I have heard your name before, as well as the respected name of Master Koroku. I am Akechi Mitsuhide, a retainer of Lord Saito Dosan."

The politeness of the greeting left Shichinai feeling slightly paralyzed. "Well, what do you want?" he asked.

"Tonight's plan."

"What about tonight's plan?" Shichinai asked with feigned indifference.

"It has to do with the particulars I learned from the needle seller, which shocked me into coming here with great speed. Tonight's outrageit is, perhaps, impolite to call it a outragebut from the standpoint of military strategy it is very poorly conceived. I cant believe this is Lord Dosan's idea. I would like you to drop it immediately."

"Never!" Shichinai shouted arrogantly. "This is not being done on my orders. The orders come from Master Koroku, at Lord Dosan's request."

"That's what I assumed to be the case," Mitsuhide said in an ordinary tone of voice

"Naturally, you wouldn't call it off on your own authority. My cousin Mitsuharu has gone to Sagiyama to remonstrate with Lord Dosan. He's to meet with us here. My request is that you all stay here until he comes."

Mitsuhide was always polite to everyone, while also being resolute and courageous. But the effect of courtesy varies with the sensibility of the person spoken to, and there are times when it may lead one party to become arrogant.

Huh! An insignificant youth. He nibbles a little bit of learning, but he's nothing more than a greenhorn, making excuses, thought Shichinai. "We're not waiting!" he shouted and then said bluntly, "Master Mitsuhide, don't stick your nose in where it doesnt belong. You're just a useless hanger-on. Aren't you one of your uncle's dependents?"

"I don't have time to think about my duty. And this is an emergency for my lord's house."

"If you thought so, you would prepare yourself with armor and provisions, hold the torch as we do, and be at the very vanguard of the attack on Inabayama."

"No, I couldn't do that. There's a certain difficulty in being a retainer."

"How's that?"

"Isn't Lord Yoshitatsu the heir of Lord Dosan? If Lord Dosan is our master, so is Lord Yoshitatsu."

"But if he becomes an enemy?"

"That's despicable. Is it right for father and son to draw bows and shoot at each other? In this world, there are no examples even of birds and beasts doing such a dishonorable thing."

"You're a lot of trouble. Why don't you just go home and leave us alone?"

"I can't do that."

"Huh?"

"I will not leave before Mitsuharu gets here."

Shichinai perceived for the first time a resolute strength in the voice of the young man in front of him. He also saw serious intent in the spear Mitsuhide held at his side.

"Mitsuhide! Are you there?" Mitsuharu rushed up gasping for breath.

"Over here. What happened at the castle?"

"It's no good." Mitsuharu, his shoulders heaving, grasped his cousin's hand. "Lord Dosan will not hear of calling it off, no matter what. Not only he, but also my father, said this is not something that we, as dependents, should be involved in."

"Even my uncle?"

"Yes, he was furious. I was willing to stake my life on it and did the best I could. It's a desperate situation. The troops seemed to be getting ready to leave Sagiyama. I was afraid the town might already be put to the torch, so I came as fast as I could. Mitsuhide, what are we going to do?"

"Is Lord Dosan intent on burning down Inabayama, no matter what?"

"There's no way out. It seems that all we can do is our duty, and die in his service."

"I don't like it one bit! No matter if he is our lord and master, it would be too bad for a man to die in such an unworthy cause. It would be no better than a dog's death."

"Yes, but what can we do?"

"If they don't fire the town, the Sagiyama forces are not likely to move. We must take care of the source of the fire before it gets started." Mitsuhide sounded like a different person. He turned back to face Shichinai and the others, his spear at the ready. Shichinai and his men spread out into a circle.

"What do you think you're doing?" Shichinai barked at Mitsuhide. "Pointing a spear at us? And a poor one, at that?"

"That's exactly what I'm doing." Mitsuhide's voice was firm. "No one is leaving this place. But if you'll think this through, obey me and give up the idea of tonight's outrage, and if you'll go back to Hachisuka village, we'll spare your lives and I'll compensate you as best I can. What do you say?"

"Do you seriously think we can leave now?"

"This is a crisis. It could bring about the collapse of the entire Saito clan. I'm acting to prevent an incident that could bring down both Inabayama and Sagiyama."

"Fool!" a man yelled angrily. "You're still wet behind the ears. Do you think you can stop us? If you try, you'll be the first to be killed."

"I was prepared to die from the first." Mitsuhide's eyebrows were arched like those of a demon. "Mitsuharu!" called Mitsuhide, without changing his stance. "It's a fight to the death! Are you with me?"

"Of course! Don't worry about me." Mitsuharu had already unsheathed his long sword, and stood back-to-back with Mitsuhide. Keeping alive a ray of hope, Mitsuhide made one more appeal to Shichinai. "If you're concerned about losing face when you return to Hachisuka, how about taking me along as a hostage, as unworthy as I am? I'll go to Master Koroku and discuss the rights and wrongs of this affair with him. That way we can finish this business without spilling blood."

Patient and reasonable though his words were, they were heard only as whining. There were more than twenty Hachisuka men arrayed against only two.

"Shut up! Don't listen to him! It's almost past the Hour of the Dog already!"

A couple of men let out war cries, and Mitsuhide and Mitsuharu were engulfed in the fangs of a wolfpackhalberds, spears, and swords on every side. The yelling of men and the clashing of weapons mingled with the roaring of the wind, and the scene was rapidly turned into the horrible maelstrom of war.

Swords broke and the pieces went flying. Spears chased fleeing sprays of blood. Hiyoshi thought it was too dangerous to be in the midst of this carnage, so he hurriedly climbed a tree. He had seen drawn swords before, but it was the first time he had been in a real battle. Would Inabayama be transformed into a sea of flames? Would there battle between Dosan and Yoshitatsu? When he understood that this was life or death, he became more excited than ever in his life.

It took only two or three dead bodies to prompt the Hachisuka men to flee into the woods.

Ya! They're running away! Hiyoshi thought, and just in case they came back, he prudently stayed put in his tree. It was probably a chestnut tree, because something pricked his hands and the back of his neck. A scattering of nuts and twigs fell to the ground, for the tree was being shaken by the storm. He despised the men of Hachisuka as a bunch of loudmouthed cowards who had been routed by only two men. He listened hard. "Whats that?" He became flustered. It was a rain of cinders like volcanic ash. He looked through the branches. The men of Hachisuka had set their fires as they fled. Two or three parts of the woods were beginning to burn fiercely, and several of the buildings behind the Jozaiji had caught fire.

Hiyoshi jumped down from the tree and started to run. If he lost even a moment, he would be burned to death in the wood. In a daze, he ran to the burning town. The sky was filled with sparks of flamebirds of fire, butterflies of fire. The white walls of Inabayama Castle, now shining red, looked closer than during the day. Red clouds of war were swirling around them.

"It's war!" Hiyoshi yelled as he ran on through the streets. "It's war! It's the end!

Sagiyama and Inabayama will fall! But in the burnt ruins, the grass will grow again. This time the grass will grow straight!"

He ran into people.

A riderless horse galloped by.

At a crossroads, refugees clustered together, shuddering in terror. Hiyoshi, carried away by the excitement, ran at full speed, screaming like a prophet of doom. Where to? He had no destination. He could not go back to Hachisuka village, that was for sure. In any event, he left without regret what he disliked most: a gloomy people, a dark lord, civil war, and a tainted culture, all within the rotting earth of a single province.

He spent the winter in his thin cotton clothes, selling needles under a cold sky, wandering wherever his feet took him. The next year, the twenty-second year of Temmon, when the peach blossoms were everywhere, he was still calling out, "Won't you buy needles? Needles from the capital! Sewing needles from the capital!"

He approached the outskirts of Hamamatsu, walking along as carefree as ever.


Korokus Gun | Taiko | Another Master