Poetry of Death
(Part 1 of 2)
By John Outram
About the author
THE FORMER CHANCELLOR HUNG IN CHAINS from the dungeon
ceiling, while two soliders, stripped to the waist and sweating,
applied bamboo canes to his back and legs. Fukiwara Yoshiro’s eyes
flickered and rolled as he passed in and out of consciousness. General
Sakaza, ever alert, lifted his hand and signalled for the punishment to
cease. The soldiers stepped back, seemingly more relieved than their
victim, and soused themselves with cold water from the water barrel.
Sakaza seized the dipper from them and poured the contents over his
prisoner’s head. Fukiwara opened one eye and glared balefully at the
“You suffer in vain,” barked the General. “Every man has his limits. Soon you will tell all.”
Fukiwara closed his eyes again and his head drooped. He said nothing.
“You think you will resist me. But soon your spirit will fail.”
“Why, General,” purred Hunglo, the tall foreign archer. “The way you speak is almost poetry.”
“Very funny!” snapped Sakaza, whirling to face the two men watching and waiting in the shadows. His face said that he would as happily have seen either of them hanging in the former Chancellor’s place, and indeed a glint in his eye suggested that he had not lost hope that the day would come. Perhaps that would not be difficult in the case of a mercenary like Hunglo. It might prove more difficult in the case of his companion, the Samurai Lord Wakibake Toka.
“His Highness is proving a most stubborn subject,” Sakaza snarled, not deigning to conceal his dislike of the samurai. “Perhaps, Lord Toka, it is time you delivered your prisoner for questioning.”
Wakibake Toka said nothing. He turned and walked from the chamber, beckoning Sakaza with the slightest nod of his head. The General followed, with Hunglo close behind.
Once they were out of earshot of the prisoner, Toka spoke quietly: “General Sakaza, I delivered the former Chancellor to your custody. He is your prisoner, to do with as you see fit. But Fukiwara Yoshiro surrendered to me on honourable terms, and when he did so he commended his daughter to my custody. I made a promise to keep her safe, I gave my word as a samurai.”
“Never mind your word,” sneered Sakaza. “You will obey orders!”
“I am obedient to the word of the Son of Light in all things,” replied Toka.
“Then I order you in the name of the Son of Light to deliver her to me!”
“I have given my word as a samurai,” replied Lord Toka simply. “I may not break that word without loss of honour. But if the Son of Light commands it, I will break my word and lose my honour.”
“When I act on the behalf of the Son of Light,” barked Sakaza, “an order from me is the same as an order from the Son of Light! What? Do you defy me, Lord Toka?”
“When I receive my orders from the Son of Light, I will obey.”
Sakaza opened his mouth to shout again, to heap threats, insults and indignities upon the head of the proud Daimyo, but his eyes fell on the twin hilts of the swords thrust through Lord Toka’s sash. As mildly as the samurai spoke, Sakaza reminded himself that this was a warrior who would not hesitate to kill another man for the sake of his honour.
Not having been born to their class, but having risen through the army ranks to a position that should have made him at least their equal, Sakaza hated the samurai and the archaic class system they represented. He hated their arrogance and he hated their incompetence, the blood-feuds and honour-killings that had left the country in poverty and chaos for more than ten years. And yet, perversely, he hated the quietly competent Lord Toka more than anyone else in the service of the Son of Light. To begin with Sakaza had tried to win the Daimyo’s respect using a number of approaches: casual familiarity, stiff formality, hostile braggadocio. The response had always been the same: polite indifference.
With the slightest of bows, Lord Toka stepped past the General and into the torture chamber once more. He approached the sorry figure of the former Chancellor, swaying and blood-streaked, and bowed once more, this time deeply and reverentially.
“So sorry, my Prince,” he said in a low respectful voice. “I beg of you to spare us all this undignified and painful experience. Please tell General Sakaza where the Ceremonial Robes of the Supreme Heir are hidden.”
Fukiwara again opened one eye and looked the samurai up and down.
“My daughter is safe?” he asked.
“She abides under my protection.”
“You are a fine man, Toka-san. Please convey my apologies to General. I am sworn to secrecy. A successor to the Supreme Heir will arise one day. The Ceremonial Robes must remain hidden until that time.”
“Thank you, Prince Fukiwara. While I respect the vows that you have taken, I must warn you that your intransigence places all of us at great inconvenience and possible danger.”
“What must be must be. I trust my daughter to your care.”
Toka bowed again, and the former Chancellor nodded his head weakly, as much acknowledgement as he could muster. The General stood framed in the doorway, tugging his moustache furiously.
“We are not in the Imperial Court playing fancy games of etiquette!” he fumed. “You will tell all, Prince, or you will die a death that you cannot even imagine! And you, Lord Toka! You will deliver the girl to me! Then we shall see how strongly the former Chancellor holds to his vow of silence.”
Toka raised his head and met the General’s gaze. He was a good deal taller than Sakaza, and though his expression was mild there was something in the firmness of his mouth that made the General step back a pace. The samurai’s hands rested on the hilts of his two swords, the heirloom Wakibake blades that had cut a bloody path into the history of the Sacred Islands for more than two centuries.
“It is time we were going home, Lord Toka,” said the archer, Hunglo. “Bid the General pleasant dreams.”
“Good evening, General Sakaza,”
The General opened his mouth but found nothing more to say. He turned on his heel and summoned his two torturers to resume their grisly work.
Lying on his straw mattress that night, Toka
consequences of his refusal. He had made an enemy of Sakaza, but Sakaza
hated him anyway. Despite Toka’s casual manner, he was always on his
guard when dealing with the peasant-general. Neither could harm the
other without making powerful enemies at court. Each had to put up with
But what of Fukiwara and his daughter? There was nothing Toka could do for the Prince, whose fate had been sealed when Hunglo’s arrow had struck down the Supreme Heir on the battlefield (see “A Lesson in Warfare” for a full account of this battle~ The Supreme Plasmate). If he refused to tell Sakaza where the Ceremonial Robes were hidden, he would die slowly. If he gave in, he would die quickly. That was his choice, and Toka respected a man’s choice as to how he should die.
But his weakness was Noriko Fukiwara, his only daughter, only surviving child. Could the Prince stand to see her endure the same torture that he withstood – and maybe worse? There was no doubt Sakaza would exploit this weakness without mercy. He had hardly stretched his imagination in his maltreatment of the prince, but if the girl fell into his hands he would no doubt give it full rein.
Toka thought back to the afternoon he had spent with Lady Noriko at the lakeside house he had made his temporary home – the water playing in the fountain, the birds and butterflies playing in the jasmine trees, the sound of her voice laughing, talking and reciting poetry in the sunshine.
Warm sunlight sparkles
The samisen speaks softly
The fountain laughs loud
She had performed the tea ceremony for him, with the exquisite grace and precision that marked the etiquette of the Imperial Capital. She had played the samisen for him, singing songs and telling amusing stories, entertaining him as if she were the lady of the house and he were an honoured guest – not her captor, her jailer and the sworn enemy of her father’s faction.
Breathing deep the jasmine air
Days of butterfly pleasure
This graceful, beautiful, educated and gentle woman will be put to death slowly and painfully for the sake of a few yards of ancient embroidery, he thought bitterly. She will die for the crime of being the daughter of the last man alive who knew their hiding place. It was one more great injustice in the litany of injustice that had been this civil war.
And yet he knew that there was more to it than simple cloth. With the Ceremonial Robes hidden, the Son of Light could not consolidate the victory his armies had won over his rival. He could never wholly eliminate the risk that another Supreme Heir might arise, that the country might once more be plunged into the chaos and turmoil of civil war. The Ceremonial Robes, brought to light once more, would legitimise a new claimant. The decade of slaughter and suffering that had been brought to an end by the Supreme Heir’s death might be replaced by decades of greater suffering.
Was any woman’s life worth that risk?
Toka remembered the music by the water-fountain and knew that he would buy her life at any price.
His one hope might be that she knew her father’s secret, and would tell all to spare her father’s suffering. But she was of noble stock, and as stubborn and strong-willed as her father. She would not betray him, not even to save his life. Nor, in truth, would he have such feelings for her if she was any less faithful to her father’s vow.
The faint sound of a wood and paper screen being drawn awoke him from his reverie. That screen was decorated with a dozen little chimes that sounded softly whenever it was moved. This time the screen moved and the chimes were silent – which meant that someone had silenced them.
Still lying on the mattress, Toka reached over with his left hand and drew his wakizashi - short sword – from the scabbard that lay beside the bed. Something moved in the darkness and he thrust upwards. At the same time a sharp blade buried itself in the wooden pillow where his head had been a mere heartbeat before. A hooded figure, robed in the colours of night, groaned and sank down on the bed beside him. Toka twisted the sword blade and pulled it free, pushing the assassin away, conscious that while the man lived he might have a second weapon with which to strike. The assassin groaned again and then lay still. Toka felt for the hilt of his second sword, the longer katana, drew that too and then stepped through the screen door into the hearth-room.
The door to the garden was open, and there was enough light from stars and moon to illuminate the wood and paper panels that delineated the main room of the house. Wearing only his sleeping-robe but carrying both swords, Toka stepped purposefully towards the centre of the room, a sunken area set two steps lower than the rest of the house. He stopped when he reached the stone-lined square of the fireplace and looked around. Four black shadows stood out against the white paper of the panel walls and screen, four black-robed figures. Steel glinted in the faint light. He could see that one carried a rice-flail, while another wore metal gauntlets from which protruded six-inch tiger claws. The remaining two carried short, straight-bladed swords, the characteristic weapons of the ninja.
Standing in the middle of the room, Toka was surrounded on all sides and below his opponents; but nowhere else in the house could he command such space to wield the longer of his swords. He took a moment to steady himself and to fix in his mind the position of each of the ninja assassins. Then he raised both swords and began his work...
to go to Part Two
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