CHAPTER 3 : Part 2 – Shogun

CHAPTER 3 : Part 2 – Shogun

 He could see the jagged scar on the man’s right temple and the deep cleft in the skull below it. That’s a sword cut, he told himself. Did that cause his blindness? Was he a samurai once? For whom? Is he a spy?

  Yabu knew that the man would have been searched very carefully by his guards before being allowed to enter, so he had no fear of a concealed weapon. His own prized long sword was within reach, an ancient blade made by the master swordsmith Murasama. He watched the old man take off his cotton kimono and hang it up without seeking the peg. There were more sword scars on his chest. His loincloth was very clean. He knelt, waiting patiently.

  Yabu got out of the bath when he was ready and lay on the stone bench. The old man dried Yabu carefully, put fragrant oil on his hands, and began to knead the muscles in the daimyo’s neck and back.

  Tension began to vanish as the very strong fingers moved over Yabu, probing deeply with surprising skill. “That’s good. Very good,” he said after a while.

  “Thank you, Yabu-sama,” Suwo said. Sama, meaning “Lord,” was an obligatory politeness when addressing a superior.

  “Have you served Omi-san long?”

  “Three years, Sire. He is very kind to an old man.”

  “And before that?”

  “I wandered from village to village. A few days here, half a year there, like a butterfly on the summer’s breath.” Suwo’s voice was as soothing as his hands. He had decided that the daimyo wanted him to talk and he waited patiently for the next question and then he would begin. Part of his art was to know what was required and when. Sometimes his ears told him this, but mostly it was his fingers that seemed to unlock the secret of the man or woman’s mind. His fingers were telling him to beware of this man, that he was dangerous and volatile, his age about forty, a good horseman and excellent sword fighter. Also that his liver was bad and that he would die within two years. Saké, and probably aphrodisiacs, would kill him. “You are strong for your age, Yabu-sama.”

  “So are you. How old are you, Suwo?”

  The old man laughed but his fingers never ceased. “I’m the oldest man in the world—my world. Everyone I’ve ever known is dead long since. It must be more than eighty years—I’m not sure. I served Lord Yoshi Chikitada, Lord Toranaga’s grandfather, when the clan’s fief was no bigger than this village. I was even at the camp the day he was assassinated.”

  Yabu deliberately kept his body relaxed with an effort of will but his mind sharpened and he began to listen intently.

  “That was a grim day, Yabu-sama. I don’t know how old I was—but my voice hadn’t broken yet. The assassin was Obata Hiro, a son of his most powerful ally. Perhaps you know the story, how the youth struck Lord Chikitada’s head off with a single blow of his sword. It was a Murasama blade and that’s what started the superstition that all Murasama blades are filled with unluck for the Yoshi clan.”

  Is he telling me that because of my own Murasama sword? Yabu asked himself. Many people know I possess one. Or is he just an old man who remembers a special day in a long life? “What was Toranaga’s grandfather like?” he asked, feigning lack of interest, testing Suwo.

  “Tall, Yabu-sama. Taller than you and much thinner when I knew him. He was twenty-five the day he died.” Suwo’s voice warmed. “Eeeee, Yabu-sama, he was a warrior at twelve and our liege lord at fifteen when his own father was killed in a skirmish. At that time, Lord Chikitada was married and had already sired a son. It was a pity that he had to die. Obata Hiro was his friend as well as vassal, seventeen then, but someone had poisoned young Obata’s mind, saying that Chikitada had planned to kill his father treacherously. Of course it was all lies but that didn’t bring Chikitada back to lead us. Young Obata knelt in front of the body and bowed three times. He said that he had done the deed out of filial respect for his father and now wished to atone for his insult to us and our clan by committing seppuku. He was given permission. First he washed Chikitada’s head with his own hands and set it in a place of reverence. Then he cut himself open and died manfully, with great ceremony, one of our men acting as his second and removing his head with a single stroke. Later his father came to collect his son’s head and the Murasama sword. Things became bad for us. Lord Chikitada’s only son was taken hostage somewhere and our part of the clan fell on evil times. That was—”

  “You’re lying, old man. You were never there.” Yabu had turned around and he was staring up at the man, who had frozen instantly. “The sword was broken and destroyed after Obata’s death.”

  “No, Yabu-sama. That is the legend. I saw the father come and collect the head and the sword. Who would want to destroy such a piece of art? That would have been sacrilege. His father collected it.”

  “What did he do with it?”

  “No one knows. Some said he threw it into the sea because he liked and honored our Lord Chikitada as a brother. Others said that he buried it and that it lurks in wait for the grandson, Yoshi Toranaga.”

  “What do you think he did with it?”

  “Threw it into the sea.”

  “Did you see him?”


  Yabu lay back again and the fingers began their work. The thought that someone else knew that the sword had not been broken thrilled him strangely. You should kill Suwo, he told himself. Why? How could a blind man recognize the blade? It is like any Murasama blade and the handle and scabbard have been changed many times over the years. No one can know that your sword is the sword that has gone from hand to hand with increasing secrecy as the power of Toranaga increased. Why kill Suwo? The fact that he’s alive has added a zest. You’re stimulated. Leave him alive—you can kill him at any time. With the sword.

  That thought pleased Yabu as he let himself drift once more, greatly at ease. One day soon, he promised himself, I will be powerful enough to wear my Murasama blade in Toranaga’s presence. One day, perhaps, I will tell him the story of my sword.

  “What happened next?” he asked, wishing to be lulled by the old man’s voice.

  “We just fell on evil times. That was the year of the great famine, and, now that my master was dead, I became ronin.” Ronin were landless or masterless peasant-soldiers or samurai who, through dishonor or the loss of their masters, were forced to wander the land until some other lord would accept their services. It was difficult for ronin to find new employment. Food was scarce, almost every man was a soldier, and strangers were rarely trusted. Most of the robber bands and corsairs who infested the land and the coast were ronin. “That year was very bad and the next. I fought for anyone—a battle here, a skirmish there. Food was my pay. Then I heard that there was food in plenty in Kyushu so I started to make my way west. That winter I found a sanctuary. I managed to become hired by a Buddhist monastery as a guard. I fought for them for half a year, protecting the monastery and their rice fields from bandits. The monastery was near Osaka and, at that time—long before the Taikō obliterated most of them—the bandits were as plentiful as swamp mosquitoes. One day, we were ambushed and I was left for dead. Some monks found me and healed my wound. But they could not give me back my sight.”

  His fingers probed deeper and ever deeper. “They put me with a blind monk who taught me how to massage and to see again with my fingers. Now my fingers tell me more than my eyes used to, I think.

  “The last thing I can remember seeing with my eyes was the bandit’s widespread mouth and rotting teeth, the sword a glittering arc and beyond, after the blow, the scent of flowers. I saw perfume in all its colors, Yabu-sama. That was all long ago, long before the barbarians came to our land—fifty, sixty years ago—but I saw the perfume’s colors. I saw nirvana, I think, and for the merest moment, the face of Buddha. Blindness is a small price to pay for such a gift, neh?”

  There was no answer. Suwo had expected none. Yabu was sleeping, as was planned. Did you like my story, Yabu-sama? Suwo asked silently, amused as an old man would be. It was all true but for one thing. The monastery was not near Osaka but across your western border. The name
of the monk? Su, uncle of your enemy, Ikawa Jikkyu.

  I could snap your neck so easily, he thought. It would be a favor to Omi-san. It would be a blessing to the village. And it would repay, in tiny measure, my patron’s gift. Should I do it now? Or later?

  Spillbergen held up the bundled stalks of rice straw, his face stretched. “Who wants to pick first?”

  No one answered. Blackthorne seemed to be dozing, leaning against the corner from which he had not moved. It was near sunset.

  “Someone’s got to pick first,” Spillbergen rasped. “Come on, there’s not much time.”

  They had been given food and a barrel of water and another barrel as a latrine. But nothing with which to wash away the stinking offal or to clean themselves. And the flies had come. The air was fetid, the earth mud-mucous. Most of the men were stripped to the waist, sweating from the heat. And from fear.

  Spillbergen looked from face to face. He came back to Blackthorne. “Why—why are you eliminated? Eh? Why?”

  The eyes opened and they were icy. “For the last time: I—don’t—know.”

  “It’s not fair. Not fair.”

  Blackthorne returned to his reverie. There must be a way to break out of here. There must be a way to get the ship. That bastard will kill us all eventually, as certain as there’s a north star. There’s not much time, and I was eliminated because they’ve some particular rotten plan for me.

  When the trapdoor had closed they had all looked at him, and someone had said, “What’re we going to do?”

  “I don’t know,” he had answered.

  “Why aren’t you to be picked?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Lord Jesus help us,” someone whimpered.

  “Get the mess cleared up,” he ordered. “Pile the filth over there!”

  “We’ve no mops or—”

  “Use your hands!”

  They did as he ordered and he helped them and cleaned off the Captain-General as best he could. “You’ll be all right now.”

  “How—how are we to choose someone?” Spillbergen asked.

  “We don’t. We fight them.”

  “With what?”

  “You’ll go like a sheep to the butcher? You will?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous—they don’t want me—it wouldn’t be right for me to be the one.”

  “Why?” Vinck asked.

  “I’m the Captain-General.”

  “With respect, sir,” Vinck said ironically, “maybe you should volunteer. It’s your place to volunteer.”

  “A very good suggestion,” Pieterzoon said. “I’ll second the motion, by God.”

  There was general assent and everyone thought, Lord Jesus, anyone but me.

  Spillbergen had begun to bluster and order but he saw the pitiless eyes. So he stopped and stared at the ground, filled with nausea. Then he said, “No. It—it wouldn’t be right for someone to volunteer. It—we’ll—we’ll draw lots. Straws, one shorter than the rest. We’ll put our hands—we’ll put ourselves into the hands of God. Pilot, you’ll hold the straws.”

  “I won’t. I’ll have nothing to do with it. I say we fight.”

  “They’ll kill us all. You heard what the samurai said: Our lives are spared—except one.” Spillbergen wiped the sweat off his face and a cloud of flies rose and then settled again. “Give me some water. It’s better for one to die than all of us.”

  Van Nekk dunked the gourd in the barrel and gave it to Spillbergen. “We’re ten. Including you, Paulus,” he said. “The odds are good.”

  “Very good—unless you’re the one.” Vinck glanced at Blackthorne. “Can we fight those swords?”

  “Can you go meekly to the torturer if you’re the one picked?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Van Nekk said, “We’ll draw lots. We’ll let God decide.” “Poor God,” Blackthorne said. “The stupidities He gets blamed for!”

  “How else do we choose?” someone shouted.

  “We don’t!”

  “We’ll do as Paulus says. He’s Captain-General,” said van Nekk. “We’ll draw straws. It’s best for the majority. Let’s vote. Are we all in favor?”

  They had all said yes. Except Vinck. “I’m with the Pilot. To hell with sewer-sitting pissmaking witch-festering straws!”

  Eventually Vinck had been persuaded. Jan Roper, the Calvinist, had led the prayers. Spillbergen broke the ten pieces of straw with exactitude. Then he halved one of them.

  Van Nekk, Pieterzoon, Sonk, Maetsukker, Ginsel, Jan Roper, Salamon, Maximilian Croocq, and Vinck.

  Again he said, “Who wants to pick first?”

  “How do we know that—that the one who picks the wrong, the short straw’ll go? How do we know that?” Maetsukker’s voice was raw with terror.

  “We don’t. Not for certain. We should know for certain,” Croocq, the boy, said.

  “That’s easy,” Jan Roper said. “Let’s swear we will do it in the name of God. In His name. To—to die for the others in His name. Then there’s no worry. The anointed Lamb of God will go straight to Everlasting Glory.”

  They all agreed.

  “Go on, Vinck. Do as Roper says.”

  “All right.” Vinck’s lips were parched. “If—if it’s me—I swear by the Lord God that I’ll go with them if—if I pick the wrong straw. In God’s name.”

  They all followed. Maetsukker was so frightened he had to be prompted before he sank back into the quagmire of his living nightmare.

  Sonk chose first. Pieterzoon was next. Then Jan Roper, and after him Salamon and Croocq. Spillbergen felt himself dying fast because they had agreed he would not choose but his would be the last straw and now the odds were becoming terrible.

  Ginsel was safe. Four left.

  Maetsukker was weeping openly, but he pushed Vinck aside and took a straw and could not believe that it was not the one.

  Spillbergen’s fist was shaking and Croocq helped him steady his arm. Feces ran unnoticed down his legs.

  Which one do I take? van Nekk was asking himself desperately. Oh, God help me! He could barely see the straws through the fog of his myopia. If only I could see, perhaps I’d have a clue which to pick. Which one?

  He picked and brought the straw close to his eyes to see his sentence clearly. But the straw was not short.

  Vinck watched his fingers select the next to last straw and it fell to the ground but everyone saw that it was the shortest thus far. Spillbergen unclenched his knotted hand and everyone saw that the last straw was long. Spillbergen fainted.

  They were all staring at Vinck. Helplessly he looked at them, not seeing them. He half shrugged and half smiled and waved absently at the flies. Then he slumped down. They made room for him, kept away from him as though he were a leper.

  Blackthorne knelt in the ooze beside Spillbergen.

  “Is he dead?” van Nekk asked, his voice almost inaudible.

  Vinck shrieked with laughter, which unnerved them all, and ceased as violently as he had begun. “I’m the—the one that’s dead,” he said. “I’m dead!”

  “Don’t be afraid. You’re the anointed of God. You’re in God’s hands,” Jan Roper said, his voice confident.

  “Yes,” van Nekk said. “Don’t be afraid.”

  “That’s easy now, isn’t it?” Vinck’s eyes went from face to face but none could hold his gaze. Only Blackthorne did not look away.

  “Get me some water, Vinck,” he said quietly. “Go over to the barrel and get some water. Go on.”

  Vinck stared at him. Then he got the gourd and filled it with water and gave it to him. “Lord Jesus God. Pilot,” he muttered, “what am I going to do?”

  “First help me with Paulus. Vinck! Do what I say! Is he going to be all right?”

  Vinck pushed his agony away, helped by Blackthorne’s calm. Spill bergen’s pulse was weak. Vinck listened to his heart, pulled the eyelids away, and watched for a moment. “I don’t know, Pilot. Lord Jesus, I can’t think properly. His heart’s all right, I think.
He needs bleeding but—but I’ve no way—I—I can’t concentrate…. Give me …” He stopped exhaustedly, sat back against the wall. Shudders began to rack him.

  The trapdoor opened.

  Omi stood etched against the sky, his kimono blooded by the dying sun.

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