The Daimyo's Harigata
Akemi jerked when the shoji screen slid open and three ladies glided in. One sniffed and wrinkled her nose. Akemi felt her face glow as she hid her dirty hands in her sleeves. This is awful. How can I meet my Lord like this? If I concentrate, I can smell myself.
The three ladies were beautiful, dressed in bright floral kimonos with their hair perfumed and their faces powdered white. They settled in the corner staring. Akemi had studied the social graces with her Aunt as a child, but she was both taller and heavier than most women. Her Aunt would glide and float where she lurched and loomed. Akemi jumped again when a broad man wearing a black kimono and tall hat stalked in and sat.
“Takudo Akemi, I’m glad my samurai found you,” he said. “This is your lucky day! Were things otherwise, we would be wringing a confession out of you in my executioner’s
courtyard right now.”
Akemi shivered and bowed. Gods
protect us! What does he know? “Thank you, Lord Nakada,” she said without rising. “Please, where’s
Lord Nakada clapped his hands
and the shoji screen slid open revealing little Kiku holding the
hand of the samurai who’d captured them. Akemi looked up and felt the tension in her gut ease. Her daughter was washed, brushed and dressed in a beautiful silk kimono. Someone’s
caring for her. The little girl smiled and tried to run to her, but
the samurai held her.
“Your daughter’s fine,” Lord Nakada said. “She’ll
be staying with my ladies while you perform a small service for
“I’m not sure how I can help.” Akemi smiled and shrugged. “I’m just a shinobue player,” she
said and held up her bamboo flute.
“Liar!” he shouted and Akemi flinched away from the anger that flashed from him like heat from a glowing kiln. Akemi threw herself face down on the tatami mat. “I
know about you Takudo Ninjas. Sneak thieves and assassins! I should
be locking both you and your daughter in a cage. After you Takudo
criminals murdered the young heir, you both would be put to the sword
after my samurai had used you for their entertainment!”
“I’m sorry, Lord. Please! I’ll do whatever you ask. Just spare my daughter.” She
lay rigid, panting from the pressure of his rage.
After a moment, Lord Nakada nodded. “Better!
You walk along the edge of a sword. One slip and it will cut you
to the bone.”
Lord Nakada grunted and looked
away red-faced. “I want
you to recover an item that was stolen from me, a harigata as long
as my forearm, made of sandalwood and lacquered to a smooth black
Akemi felt the three consorts glare over the tops of their fans as she sat up. Akemi panted as if the air had been sucked from her chest. Is he insane? Our lives hang by a thread because a jaded samurai lost a sex toy?
“Um, I’ll do what I can, Lord. But why pursue this particular, ah, item? I’m
sure I could buy something as nice in Osaka.”
Lord Nakada’s face froze and the ladies hissed. “No,” he said. “I want that one. No other will do! And you’ll recover it before the new moon wanes.” He
grasped the hilt of his sword.
“Yes, Lord!” She bowed to the mat. “But I’ll
need more time. I have to learn who stole it before I can recover
“Oh, I know who stole it. I’ve already arranged for you to join the thief’s household. But if I don’t
have my property when the next moon appears, your daughter takes
your place, eh?”
Akemi opened her mouth to protest,
but saw Lord Nakada’s gaze. His face still glowed with anger, but his eyes were flat, cold. The
gaze of someone looking at a thing, not a person. A thing he’s not sure he should use or discard. Then she glanced at the samurai with Kiku, and thought her heart would burst. His eyes also were cold and dead, but his gaze was on Kiku. He patted the child’s
head and grinned at Akemi.
“My staff will tell you all we know. I don’t want to see you again without my property. For your daughter’s sake, make it soon.” He
and the ladies stood and filed out. The last consort led Kiku away
as her daughter looked back with tear-filled eyes.
Akemi’s heart thumped in time with the pounding hoof beats of the horse she’d
been given. Panting, she yearned for the uncomplicated rhythms
of her life as a young wife in her little farming village nestled
in the central mountains of Nippon. As if there ever was
such a thing. She cracked her mount with the reins, harassing the
beast for more speed.
Clan Takudo was anything but a simple farming family. Three generations before, her great grandfather Takudo Yoshi fled Osaka with his family and carved the first rice paddies into the side of their mountain. His Daimyo had lost a disastrous war, and everyone allied to him, from the commanding generals to the lowliest foot soldier, was hunted down and put to the sword. Even the wives and children were executed to insure there would be no future generation seeking vengeance.
Takudo Yoshi understood this: his Lord had been foolish to join the conflict. His retainers paid the price for his arrogance. Such was the fate of the defeated; they were spoils of war owned by the victors.
Many of Yoshi’s peers
choose to decapitate their families before committing seppuku themselves.
But her great
grandfather always was a practical man. He understood his children
no longer were of the warrior class, but he passed on his martial
skills anyway. At his death, his children and grandchildren were
experts in the martial art of ninjitsu, the martial art of war
by stealth. So, while other farming villages fell prey to the raids
of warring daimyos, samurai who ventured up the slopes of Takudo
mountain never returned.
Gone, all gone now. Akemi shivered and wiped tears away with her sleeve.
I’m sorry, Grandfather. I know you meant well, but it didn’t save us from the violence. Now I’m
losing my baby daughter!
Clan occasionally took commissions for gold. But never for murder!
They weren’t assassins. In the spring, Uncle Niboru had accepted a commission to kidnap the young heir of Eto Shiro. Shiro had been the Lord of Eto Province. When he died, his five-year-old son, Hachiro, was next in line. Shiro’s cousin seized the boy and claimed Regency of Eto Province in his name. This infuriated Shiro’s brother Eto Hiroshi, and he hired the Takudo ninjas to steal the boy back so he could rule in the child’s
The team rode off on a moonless night for Eto Province. The mission should have been easy. The local Diamyo were at peace; there was no reason to expect an armed party sneaking in. Instead, the Takudo ninja were met with word of disaster before they reached Eto Castle. The young heir was dead, murdered in his sleep. Worse, Lord Hiroshi was blaming the killing on ninja assassins.
“We’re betrayed!” her father shouted. “That bastard Hiroshi killed the boy so he could seize control in his own name.” He pulled off his black cowl and sighed. “And he’s blaming us for the killing. Ride! Back to the mountain before we’re
After a chaotic run back at the village, the elders ordered guards posted, but essentially hoped Hiroshi would leave them be.
Then one night her father
slammed open the shoji screen to her and her husband’s room.
“Get up, both of you!
Jiro, get your spear and follow me.”
Jiro jammed his sword
into his sash and snatched up his spear. “Is it bandits?”
“No!” father said. “It’s
the Eto samurai. The guards spotted them in the valley and are
holding them. But
we have to hurry. There are too many for those few guards to turn
them away. Akemi, take Kiku and run. Head for the caves on the
far slope. There are supplies and food stored there.”
Akemi shook her head
and rolled out of the futon. “I’m coming with you.” She snatched up her bow from its stand in the corner. “I
can fight. too.”
“No!” Father shouted back. “Get my granddaughter to safety. The Eto clan wants blood, not captives. You know what they’ll do if they get their bloody hands on her.” They
locked gazes and Akemi shivered. Is it that bad?
She ran into the night with bow and quiver over one shoulder, Kiku tied behind the other. In front of the village temple, she found a churning crowd of crying children and older women. Akemi counted heads to be sure she had everyone, then with shouts and threats led them up the mountain toward the far slope toward safety.
As Akemi ran through
the last of the trees into the open slope near the peak, she saw
down. The warriors shouted with glee as they spurred their war
horses at the unarmed villagers, swords and spears poised. Akemi
grasped the breadth of their enemy’s plan with a moment’s thought. They
rode up the opposite slope while the main party attacked from below.
They intended to overrun the village from above while our men are
engaged by the party below. How many are there? We’re
caught between hammer and anvil.
The horsemen rode down without slowing even though the villagers fell to their knees screaming for mercy. As the horsemen rode through the women and children, Akemi slid into the bushes downslope. She watched for moment, hoping some would follow, but the few who ran were cut down with sword and spear while the rest were kept in a huddled mass on the ground by the circling riders. Then the Samurai rode in, weapons in hand, expressionless, slashing and stabbing the captives.
Akemi covered her mouth with her hands as the samurai hacked down her sister, her aunts and her little cousins. Long after they died, the samurai chopped and slashed. Numb, Akemi backed away.
As dawn broke, Akemi crept through the village to salvage the family scroll of twenty Takudo generations. At the foot of the mountain, she found the Takudo men. They lay scattered among the trees, arrows skewing their bodies.
They didn’t even have
a chance to draw their swords. An ambush, no quarter given. Akemi
slowed as she
approached the two lying farthest down the slope.
She knelt stroking her
husband’s cheek with her one hand and her father’s with the other. Her fingers brushed Jiro’s lips and she felt his kiss. Only now his kiss was a dagger thrust, tearing her flesh. Still she couldn’t pull her hand away, she wouldn’t,
not if it would end his kiss, and the pain grew until she shrieked
with each breath. Below, bushes rustled and a samurai stepped onto
“How did you manage to escape, pretty girl?” He
leered and drew his sword.
All of the deaths contracted
into a white-hot flame dancing in her breast. “Murderer!” she shouted
and whipped her bow off her shoulder and drew an arrow. With one
motion, she notched, pulled and released. Her second followed the
first. The samurai was shouting when arrows slammed into his eye
and his throat. He spun and fell.
Akemi grinned so hard her cheeks hurt, tears streaming. Shouting, three samurai charged up the path. She shot three arrows as they drew their swords. Two dropped with arrows quivering in their throats. The third spun with an arrow jutting from his shoulder. Akemi was drawing another when a dozen more charged up the slope shouting.
Akemi observed from
the distance. I don’t stand a chance against so many swords. But this was drowned out by another voice, “They murdered my family! Make them pay!” So
Shouting “Takudo! Takudo!” she drew and shot. As enemies screamed, tears streamed down her cheeks. When she slapped the top of an empty quiver, Akemi threw aside the bow and snatched up Jiro’s spear. Her vision was tinged red, transforming the samurai into stick figures she longed to dance among, stabbing and slashing. She thrust the gleaming head of the spear forward and tensed, preparing to sprint down the slope. One
more battle and then I can die! “Takudo!” she
shouted again. Then Kiku squirmed on her back.
Oh my god! I forgot you!
The fire in her heart
vanished, leaving Akemi cold and trembling. One living samurai
stood among the dead
wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He raised his hands in surrender. Before
he could move, Akemi darted into bushes. She knew she’d not be captured. She’d
trained since childhood for this moment.
Once the sun set, she
slipped past the sentries. Only after she was well away did her
steps falter. Where
am I going? My family’s dead! The rest of the night, she sat in
a clearing rocking Kiku.
The next day she walked
through a village south of the mountain. She didn’t linger. Overnight, the Eto clan sent out riders posting notice of a bounty of gold for her and Kiku, wealth enough for a poor farming family to live on for a year. She ran after reading the scroll nailed to the headman’s
doorpost as the villagers stared.
And so she and Kiku kept moving, surviving on the coins Akemi earned playing her shinobue, until the Eto samurai caught them by the river.
she’d been told to ride south to Ise Province by Lord Nakada’s
head Samurai, she rode east to Nara Province instead. As dawn colored
the sky, she rode her clattering into the stone-paved courtyard
of the Todai-ji Temple outside Nara.
A young monk ran out
to bar her way. Akemi threw the young acolyte the reins. “I need to see Brother Yuki. I’m his niece, his brother Nor’s
The acolyte opened and closed his mouth, and then brought her inside and seated her before the towering bronze Buddha Todai-ji Temple housed.
Her mind whirled as
she sat in the statue’s looming shadow seeing only Kiku’s
tearful face. The statue of the Enlightened One seemed to smile
down with all-knowing benevolence, bidding her to calm herself,
assuring her that Kiku would be safe. Akemi dried her tears and
Holy One, I hope
that’s true, but I’m so afraid! Akemi breathed deep and pulled the family scroll from her obi. She set the scroll at the Buddha’s feet. Please,
great Buddha, protect and preserve her. If she dies, this history
will be ashes in the wind. Akemi breathed deep and forced her daughter from her mind. I
can’t rescue her from Lord Nakada’s keep, so I’ll
have to move forward.
So what do I do now? My whole world has been turned upside down.
Her father’s words came to her. “To prepare for battle, you must consider your life as an arrow on the archer’s
bow. Your target must be your only thought. One life, one arrow.”
Yes, father, but
I don’t know what my target is. I can feel the powers moving around me, blowing me about like a leaf in a gale. But the only piece of the puzzle she had was the harigata. Get
that, and maybe the rest will be clear? Focusing on this, Akemi pushed aside all other thoughts. Everything
else is moot if I don’t
solve this. Still her heart thumped in her breast.
Yuki, her father’s brother, had started life living on the mountain like the rest of the clan. His prowess at the way of the sword was a legend as she grew up. But he had followed a wandering monk when he was young and never returned. Still her father spoke of him with great pride. “He is third behind the Abbott. He’ll
be in charge of the temple one day.”
Akemi stared at her uncle, trying to glean some hope from him. His head was shaved, and he was dressed in the patched, orange robe of a Buddhist monk. But the muscles on his bare arms were thick and corded, and he walked with cat-like grace.
Akemi described the
attack on Takudo mountain, her capture and her bizarre mission. “I’m sure they’re going to murder Kiku and me, no matter what. But I can’t
think of a way to avoid it. They have Kiku!”
Her uncle grunted as
he pulled at his sparse beard. “I agree. This makes no sense. Lord Nakada is a clever warlord. I’ve been hearing gossip for years on how he dominates the central provinces with his schemes. He just concluded an alliance with the Eto clan by marrying off his sister. So why would he risk public embarrassment if you’re caught?” He
blew a puff of air out his cheeks and shook his head.
“Insane or not, I have to steal that silly toy back,” Akemi said. “Do
you still have ninja tools?”
“Yes, I still have my gear, although I’ve not touched it in decades.” He stood and stepped to the door. “Did Lord Nakada give you a letter of introduction to Lord Takatora? Good! I’ll write one as well. But after you recover his lordship’s
harigata, bring it here. Nothing makes sense, and that thing is
at the center of all this insanity.”
(continued on page 2)