This story is by Kaleb Lee and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sun broke over the roof of the castle keep, casting red light across the prisoner’s room. In the distance, the roosters kept at the local shrine crowed. The prisoner hadn’t slept. He’d been up all night working on his poetry, trying to get it just right, and feeling unsatisfied. He was glad Lord Ito had allowed him these small comforts, his poetry and his room. He himself had thrown prisoners into places much worse than this.
“Shitsureishimasu. Excuse me, Takayama-sama. It is time,” a voice said from behind the wooden door adorned with painted cranes in flight. The prisoner got to his feet as the door slid open. “Sama” the honorific befitting a lord. It felt wrong now. He was a prisoner. A well treated prisoner, but a prisoner nonetheless.
“We have brought your clothes,” an old man said, bowing as he entered the room. Several other men filed in behind him. They’d been his servants for years. Lord Ito must have known that. Was this intended as an insult, Ito’s way of showing him what he was giving up, or an attempt to be generous, to give him one last courtesy?
The servants worked in silence. They dressed him in a white robe, tied tight with a sash. Carefully, they unfurled the sleeves so that there were no wrinkles. None of them met his eyes. He appreciated that. He didn’t want to see what was behind their eyes, to know what they were thinking. How would their lives change after he was gone? Whether they served him or another lord, perhaps it wasn’t so different. Had he been kind enough to them? The idea that he ought to say something passed through his mind, perhaps that he’d always appreciated their service. But, he was a prisoner now. How could he express his gratitude? What would be fitting? What would be proper? Before he could conjure up the right words, they were finished.
“Inoue-sama will be here shortly. He will go with you to meet Lord Ito.” With another bow, the door slid shut, and they were gone. He was alone again.
The city was waking up now. He could hear the sounds of iron clanking, hammers repairing the damaged buildings from the battle. Shouts of men hauling off debris. Through the window, he could see some peasant men, stripped down to their underwear, working on top of a roof. In the distance, the bell of a temple echoed, a monk recited, “Namu myoho renge kyo. Glory to the divine Lotus Sutra.” A strange feeling stirred inside him. Was it guilt or longing? There were stories of great lords who left everything and wandered the countryside, visiting temples, and begging for alms.
Maybe in his next life, were he found worthy enough to be a lord, or some high ranking person, he would do just that. His time would be spent not commanding samurai, but meditating and chanting the glorious Lotus Sutra with the other holy men. What would the chanting monk make of his decision to surrender? His thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the door.
“Takayama-Sama. Lord Takayama, are you there?”
“Come in, Ran.”
The door slid open once more and Inoue Ran came inside, getting down on his knees to bow. His hair was long and mangled, beard unshaven. He looked tired, but his attire was still that of a samurai. He’d been given clean blue robes and his katana and tanto, a long sword and a short sword, hung at his belt.
“Please Ran, or should I say, Inoue-Sama. Please get up. This isn’t proper.”
“Not proper? My lord, I swore an oath to serve you unto death, and I shall do it.”
“There’s been enough death, Ran.” The prisoner turned from him to watch the people working outside. Houses damaged by fire lined the streets. While some people worked, others wandered about, picking through the wreckage of their homes.
“I have spoken to the other men. They are loyal to you. Say the word, and the castle will be yours once more.”
“This castle is nothing but a prison. It has been a prison for the better part of a month, since Lord Ito began his siege.”
“Please, Takayama-sama. Do not tell me…”
“Yes, Ran. I plan on going through with it. I plan on doing exactly what Ito demands.”
“You cannot! They call him ‘the viper’ for a reason! How many people have died because-” Takayama stopped him with a raised hand. Ran had gotten to his feet, his voice rising. Even in his present position, it shocked Lord Takayama to see him this way.
“How many men have I sent into battle? How many men have I asked you to lead to their deaths? My son is dead, Ran. My city is burned. Today the monks chant for him and how many others like him? Let them chant for me. But I will not let them chant for you. No one else will die because of me.” Ran sank back to his knees.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Lord Ito will allow you and the others to continue to serve as retainers for the governor he appoints here at the castle. You will be under the command of some of his men. But you will keep your positions. If you will pledge yourselves to him, you will live.”
“I’m not asking, Ran. There is one more thing you must do. One final duty I need you to perform.”
“I need you to be my kaishakunin. I need you to take my head.” The two of them sat there for a long time. Finally, Ran broke the silence.
“My father served your family, and his father before him. If this is what must be done, I will do it.” Ran stood, and now the prisoner bowed to him.
“Arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you, Ran.”
Two ashigaru, peasant spearmen of Ito’s army, arrived to escort the two of them to Lord Ito.
“It’s him!” one whispered to the other, “Higashi no Tora, the Tiger of the East! Lord Takayama!”
They bound Takayama’s hands, trying not to gawk too much. Was this another sleight from Ito as well? Did he feel so confident in his victory that he didn’t need to send samurai to collect his prisoner? Or was it trust that Takayama would keep his end of the bargain?
These ashigaru knew who he was. He wondered if his army had burned one of their villages. His stomach knotted when he thought that one of them might know the man who killed his son.
The sad retinue walked the halls of the castle in silence. Takayama couldn’t help but watch the faces of the people passing by. Some of Ito’s samurai walked the halls. The contempt was visible in their eyes. It was a contempt he understood.
Some of the servants looked at him solemnly. What brought on that solemnity? Was it the siege of the town, the loss of a loved one, or was it genuine pity for the man who had brought all this upon them? Higashi no Tora provoking the Viper, Lord Ito, to battle. What had it all been for?
The ashigaru took them to the garden. It was still peaceful there, nearly impossible to tell that a great battle had raged around it. The gardeners had even kept the stones raked and in order. Water lilies that Takayama’s mother had planted when he was just a boy showed their white flowers on the pond. Lord Ito stood near the pond. He was bigger than Takayama imagined, with rosy red cheeks and a thin goatee. He greeted them as they approached.
“Finally, the Viper of the West meets the Tiger of the East! Lord Takayama, you have fought hard. Your son died bravely. His memory will be honored by your people for generations. I commend you on your defense of the city, and I commend you on accepting defeat.” Takayama understood this had been a sleight, but it was true. He had been defeated. He knelt before Ito. He would need all his strength for what came next.
“You will honor our agreement? No one else will die?”
“The city is safe. Your men will serve as my retainers here. No one else will be hurt. Even the taxes on the people will stay the same! You have my word!”
Two servants arrived now and placed a sword in front of him. It was his tanto, the short sword he’d carried his entire life but hoped never to use. His hands were unbound. He picked up the sword and unsheathed it, examining the blade. He thought of his poem, the ink still drying in his room.
“I plant a tree,
though I will never taste its fruit,
still my people
may enjoy its blossoms.”
Lord Takayama plunged the tanto into his stomach. As Takayama’s white robe turned red, Ran drew his sword and took his head.