Chapter 1

The Prince and the Slave Girl

Earth, the home of humanity, was gradually fashioned from atoms.

The Bando plain of today has shifted countless times. As a result, scars from ancient times cover the natural world. Like the agony of the inescapable shedding of skin, Fuji, Asama, and Nasugatake surrounded this large plain from a distance always belching sulfurous yellow smoke.

A human boy Soma no Kojiro was born in this place as a lump of flesh embodying the face of the Earth and the spirit of Heaven.

This year he would be about fourteen years old.

His flesh was firm, plump boar meat, and his eyes were like wild grapes. His cheeks were shiny red, and his hair that resembled strands of corn silk was always tied up. Any place on his body secreted an essence that smelled of sunshine or soil.

But after the new year began, this youth and his black pupils somehow lost their vitality. He became listless nearly resembling an imbecile.

After his father died, he became intimate with Ezohagi, a slave girl kept by his family. Before long, a vassal of his ill-tempered uncle discovered the two of them hiding away in the horse feed storehouse.

"During the day, the prince has been consorting in the horse feed storehouse with a daughter of Ebisu behaving like a member of a troupe of entertainers. His playmate was, of all things, a slave girl," he bellowed as if this matter were serious. Why did his uncles, who were now his guardians, say nothing to Kojiro but severely punished the slave girl Ezohagi? She was whipped thirty to forty times in front of a large crowd.

After that, Ezohagi never showed herself again to Kojiro. He became estranged from his senior and junior uncles who lived in the residence and made a point of staying away from them like he embraced the mean-spiritedness of not showing his face to them. Around that time, he was seldom found inside the estate compound. If he had the time, he would go to the Oyu pasture about three miles from the compound to play with the horses or sit on one of the hills and lazily watch the clouds pass by.

As a pasture on the Bando plain, Oyu could be said to be the most expansive one.

There were four pastures like this within the domain of this clan.

After land, horses were the fortune. If they were led to the capital, people demanded a contest. Even in the countryside, good horses could always be exchanged for nuggets of gold.

That's what horses meant in his clan.

A survey of the provinces of Shimousa, Kazusa, Hitachi, Shimotsuke, and Musashi would find few families as wealthy as his. They owned many horses; rich, new reclaimed rice fields; and an expanse of virgin soil offering with limitless cultivation.

When he came to this place, Soma no Kojiro remembered the words his father Yoshimochi often said, "You are my eldest son and heir."

He enjoyed those moments his father's voice popped into his head on the days he sat daydreaming on the hills in the pasture.

At times, he was watching the clouds go by when tears suddenly poured from his eyes, and snot dripped from his nose. In the end, he screwed up his face to cry out loud and alone.

No one doubted that no matter how much he cried, he was never soothed. He made himself cry until the tears ended naturally. Eventually, he stopped sobbing, and his face dried by the sun looked as if he had forgotten and nothing had happened.

"Prince … Prince Kojiro."

Someone was calling him from far away.

A man who worked in the horse stable stood at the bottom of the hill waving for him to come down. It was mealtime. Kojiro turned his head to look.

"I'm not eating. I'm not going to eat. I'll eat this evening."

The man persisted and repeatedly urged him to come. In response, Kojiro hurled a rock at him.

"Idiot! If you want me to eat so badly, get me a bird."

The rock missed the man and hit an innocent colt. The man took off running to the horse stalls. The colt bolted down to the marsh.

This pasture had several hills like this. He looked and could see the shadows of horses drinking water in the marsh, others lying on their sides sleeping, and a group of colts wading through the grasses. After his father Yoshimochi died at the end of the previous year, the number of horses dropped rapidly.

The mikuriya Urando, who managed the pasture for his father and still did, told Kojiro what happened to the horses after overhearing the chatter of members of his father's clan.

"Kojiro, it's not only the horses. Many more things should be left, like the items in the granary, in the weapons storehouse, and in several storehouses for money and valuables of this house.… I can't talk too loudly, but your uncles, who are supposed to be your guardians, have secretly carried off everything to their territories … including the horses. This is not the work of horse thieves. I saw it with my own eyes. But I cannot confront the power of your three uncles. If I did, I couldn't spend my days in this pasture."

However, this was not a serious matter to Kojiro. The obvious decrease in the number of horses in the pasture was no different than the sorrow of good friends going away. Objects disappearing from the storehouses or remaining there were not a problem in his head.

And etched deeply into his child's heart were the uncles who came to his home from the lands where they lived, such as Hitachi, Shimousa, and Kazusa, at the time of his father's death.

The haughtiest was his senior uncle Chief Minister Kunika of Hitachi, the older brother of his father Yoshimochi. His other uncles Yoshikane and Yoshimasa, his father's two younger brothers, joined him as guardians.

These three uncles began to directly control the expanse of land held by Kojiro's father. The many family members, the servants and slaves, everyone respected these three men as the new heads and were afraid to speak ill of them.

No one saw this as being unfair. The reason was when Yoshimochi's death was imminent, he spoke his will to Kunika, Yoshikane, and Yoshimasa with his relatives and children gathered at his bedside.

"I have seven children, but the oldest, Kojiro, is still young. I am asking you to manage the rice production in the areas I have cultivated and my ancestral manors of government-provided land in various locations and return them all along with the horses in the pasture and the servants after Kojiro becomes a man. That is my only concern.… I'm imploring you."

This was widely known. Kojiro was familiar with this after hearing about it many times, even from the mikuriya Urando. Therefore, he saw nothing unfair in this situation.

The liveliness of his youthful heart was not ruined by this matter or by his love of Ezohagi. It was a chill that overtook the family of his birth. At any place inside the grounds of this mansion was hate. He could only say that sitting on this hill was the best thing to do.