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Osaka 1615

Bonfires lit the camp and the raucous cheers of samurai erased the sullen mood that had dominated the previous winter. There was no fear of snipers or nighttime raiders now, and the celebration showed it. Trophies in hand, I walked through camp toward the temporary structure where the Retired Shogun was conducting the viewing ceremony. I fell into line and considered the possibility of dropping my bundles and running off into the night. The hope that I would be forgiven for returning with proof of my skill in battle was the only thing that kept me standing there.

My fellow guards were controlling the line of samurai waiting to see Tokugawa Ieyasu. One of them recognized me and walked over to tell me I was to wait until the last man had presented himself. I stepped out of the line and followed him to a dark place under the trees where I could hide in the shadows until my turn came. I do not know how long I sat there, but I am thankful that Hidetada held the official title of Shogun, for had he not been receiving samurai himself, I might have been waiting in that spot until dawn.

The camp gradually became quieter, although there were still occasional shouts and bursts of song. Two guards approached and escorted me to a small building more in keeping with that of a tea master than the most powerful man in the land. After surrendering my swords, one of the guards slid open the door and I was permitted to enter alone. The room was dimly lit. I could make out three tatami mats on my side with a small wooden platform on the middle one. A linen curtain divided the room in half. On the other side, somewhere on the raised floor, Ieyasu waited for me in silence. I knelt at the entrance and held a bow. Then, ignoring the pain of my injuries, I walked on my knees to a spot behind the platform. My movements were deliberate. Regardless of the fate that awaited me, I was going to let propriety mask my inner feelings.

I bowed again and announced myself, "O-Gosho-sama, it is I, Ishikawa Jozan."

It was so quiet I could almost convince myself that Ieyasu had left the room. Knowing him, he was waiting—studying me for signs of discomfort. Right at the moment when the silence seemed intolerable, Ieyasu spoke, “Well, is this our miracle warrior rising up from his sick bed to enter the battle?”

He pulled back the curtain and glared down at me. I said nothing. His countenance signalled a mixture of resignation and disgust. He wore the same white kimono with a brown haori overcoat that he had on earlier in the day. Whether he had forsworn his armour due to confidence in victory or because it no longer fit, I could only surmise. Age related illnesses had reduced his bulk somewhat, but he was no less imposing than when we had first met. His ginger movements suggested that he was more active earlier in the day than he had anticipated. The thought that he could have used me at his side was the only one in my mind.

“Show me the heads.”

I knelt down and unwrapped each head before placing it on the bloodstained viewing board, moving as slowly as decorum would permit to delay experiencing his wrath. Upon finishing, I backed up, bowed, and waited on my knees.

“Well done, Ishikawa. Three heads, and in your condition, too. Young Maeda made sure to commend you. It pleases me to see that you were finally able to prove yourself worthy to your ancestors.”

“Thank–”

“Let me have a closer look.” He stood up and walked over to see the tags that identified each head. “Two of these men were Ono’s I see.” He studied the head of the young man I had killed in the castle. “And who was this latter-day Atsumori representing? Toyotomi Hideyori?”

His reference to the centuries old story of Atsumori shamed me. The gap in age and experience between Atsumori and his killer paralleled that between this dead youth and myself. That he lacked Atsumori’s princely status only undercut my accomplishment further. Mercifully, Ieyasu limited his critique to that allusion and shifted to his real concern.

“This is unexpected. I thought we charged into Sanada’s men today. The overzealous among us even returned with some Mori and Ono heads, but this is the first from Toyotomi. How is it that one of my bodyguards comes before me with this head? Ishikawa, I wish you to explain yourself, and speak plainly. Remember that I commanded your father and grandfather in battle and deeply respected both of them. There is no need to equivocate.”

“O-Gosho-sama, the truth is that I was desperate to enter battle in memory of them both. Having not been given permission by one of your doctors to return to service, I felt that the surest way was to join Maeda on the front lines.”

“That was very brave of you. Brave to go to the front. Braver to interpret my orders in such a self-serving manner.” He exhaled audibly. “What would you have done if I had died today? Were these three heads worth risking the shame you would have felt had I perished in battle? If you were anyone but your father’s son, I would be ordering you to commit seppuku where you sit.” There was a long pause as he stared at a flickering torch. I imagined myself in a white kimono, kneeling with a short sword poised in front of my belly, just before the moment I plunged it in for atonement.

“You have presented me with the type of dilemma I would have preferred to judge a few months from now. There are many men under my command, from general to foot soldier, who expect me to order your death. How would you judge another man in your position?”

“I failed to protect O-Gosho-sama when he entered the battle. I joined another unit without permission. There is only one punishment that would be fitting.”

“In the old world, yes. But the world changed today. My problem is that not enough people realize this yet to understand why I might let you live. What do I risk if my action is interpreted as a relaxing of discipline when it is intended as something else?”

Ieyasu was in a strange, reflective mood that I had never witnessed before. He seemed to feel the need to speak to me as a confidante, despite the disparity in our status and the precariousness of my situation.

“Ishikawa, do you understand what happened today?”

“I am sorry if this sounds trite, but I only know that there is no one left to oppose the Tokugawa.”

“That is half true. But what is the real significance of this victory?”

“I do not know.”

“The Chinese discovered this truth, and our own history has borne it out—greatness can only endure three generations. I no longer require samurai to defend my interests at the tip of a spear, but with the mind. I had thought you would make the transition to serving me in the new bakufu. But you revealed an ability to subvert my orders for your own purposes that is more troubling than your failure to protect me.”

There was silence as he waited for me to feel the fullness of his disappointment.

“I am not going to order you to commit seppuku, Ishikawa, but I have no desire to explain my reasoning. My success results from an ability to conceal my motives from others. What reason do I have to reveal them to a man who disobeys my orders? In fact, I am too angry with you to determine your punishment right now. You are to return to Sunpu and sit under house arrest until your punishment is decided. Do you understand?”

“I do.” I am unsure why I could not stop myself, but asked, “May I make a request?”

“A request?” I could detect exasperation in his voice.

“That I might serve my house arrest at Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto.”

“Myoshinji?”

“Yes, sir. I know it is inappropriate to ask for anything when O-Gosho-sama has already shown mercy and spared my life. If anything, they would probably supervise my house arrest with greater strictness than in Sunpu.”

He reflected for a moment. “That much is true. Scrubbing the temple floors would certainly give you time to ponder your insubordination. I am inclined not to though, because this very request just seems to be another example of your audacity. I am beginning to suspect that your time spent with this monk, Sesshin, has begun to make you think too much for a samurai.”

He stopped and looked at me for so long that I lowered my eyes to avoid his contemplative gaze.

“Perhaps if you gain an education worthy of your keen mind, you will have an interesting vantage point from which to witness the unfolding of my plan to secure peace in the realm beyond three generations. Yet you will have no one of influence with whom to share your observations. It could be a frustrating life for you. That would be a real punishment, Ishikawa—educate yourself, fathom my plan, then experience the helplessness of being unable to subvert it, let alone stop it.”

I pressed my fists into the ground, trying to control the anger in my voice, “Why would I wish to see your descendants fail? Although I have failed you, I remain loyal.”

“Ishikawa, once a man has experienced the taste of independent thought, he loses the capacity to serve. When I am dead, the Tokugawa family will lose the ability to rule through will alone. The system I have conceived to sustain our dynasty will not depend on the charisma of any one leader. The unfortunate consequence is that it leaves no place for men like you.”

He walked back to his seat. “You will await my answer in the morning.”

I bowed penitently. As I stood up, I saw the backs of three heads sitting on the platform. I left them and returned to my tent, struggling to understand all of the implications of our conversation. My mixed feelings about escaping death in exchange for house arrest smouldered while I attempted to grasp the meaning of Ieyasu’s words. He already thought moves ahead of other men, and I was starting from further behind than most. It could take the rest of my life to make sense of his curse.

End of Chapter One. Read a longer free preview of The Samurai Poet.