1


A Difference of Seven Years

Tide along a river brimming with spring's life processes masked the kissing sounds made by water lapping against a stonewall. The daimyo's Tokyo mansion in Teppouzu of the Asano clan followed the river in Tsuki-ji. A gentle breeze grazed the reddish pink plum blossoms on the fence and the willow trees. Gold- and silver-papered sliding doors blocked the odors from the sea at the mouth of the large river.

He could hear oars dipping into the water just beyond the fence and the frequent plops of white droppings from sea birds onto the large canopy.

"Home in Ako, the beaches are filled with boaters and people gathering shells at low tide," said Takumi no Kami propped on his armrest to survey the sky. His eyes recalled the smoke from salt baking on the beach in his faraway home province.

He glimpsed a refined woman of twenty-five or -six years old in the adjoining room. She was his wife sitting with elegance before a teakettle enclosed by the tearoom screen. She set fine utensils on a purple tea crepe wrapper and, in time, glided over to place a teacup in front of Takumi no Kami. Her gaze followed his to the blue sky above the eaves.

"Everyone in Edo takes pride in the Edo spring. But when I think of home, I become nostalgic and long for the castle keep in Ako."

"Is there a better place to live?"

He nodded. "The country is best for the country cousin."

Today, the taps from a small hand drum played in the style of the Okura School floated in from Ogasawara Hayato's mansion next door. Noh was a popular pastime. Noh was not the only popular art.

Samurai and townsmen pursued the fad of the day. Men felt unfulfilled. A large void pained many. Ruffian dandies with the flair of kabuki reached their peak. Even young ladies from good homes fancied bawdy colors. The number of abandoned babies in town grew. The parents of harlots were pompous and made good livings. Perhaps many retainers on duty in Edo played a stanza of an Edo song to a bathhouse girl. Everyone knew about Yoshiwara. At the extreme, some townsmen bragged about eating quail and took pride in sacred rohdea lilies worth fifty or one hundred gold pieces and their rise in the world. No one saw this as excessive in these days of the Genroku era (1688-1704).

Behind closed doors, others grumbled about the government.

"The bottom follows the example set at the top."

"During the Kan'ei era, the ways of warriors and the ways of townsmen were not corrupt as they are these days."

Many lamented in secret and vilified the consequences of the personality of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

Naturally, inside information about the daimyo's life stripped out the rotten parts. People on the outside only saw the extravagance and showiness of his life. In the inner circle, these times called for makeshift measures. He imposed harsh taxes on the people of his domain and borrowed money from the wealthy. He also adored the socially accomplished vassals and deemed them loyal men.

In those days, only the Asano clan was low-key and frugal. Galvanized by Confucius and the samurai philosopher Yamaga Soko, the clan's unadorned way of the warrior since its founding was out of step with the rampant overindulgence of the Genroku era.

Thus, the clan's finances boasted a surplus. The annual production of Ako salt was plentiful. In short, the absence of arrogance and the steadfast actions of the warrior in Takumi no Kami and his wife were their true fortune.

"The tea's temperature is perfect. Another, please."

"Yes."

His wife again sat in front of the furosaki screen.

The couple shared interests in the tea ceremony, the incense-smelling ceremony, and drawing. Vassals looked with envy at the harmony in their interests and daily lives.

Happy sun rays beamed down. This glorious day, March 3, was the peaceful festival day for the Doll's Festival.

Go to sleep.
Now sleep.
You're a good girl.
What'd you buy for the festival tonight?
A spool of agarwood thread.
A silver needle.
Don't cry. Don't worry.
Good girl.
What did you sew for the festival tonight?
An obi sash with pretty plum, cherry, and pine trees.
A short-sleeved silk kosode kimono …

They heard a woman singing strains of a melancholy lullaby and a crying baby. No one was outside on the grounds. The sounds must have slipped in through the fence from a boat moored below the outer stonewall. As the boatman's hoarse voice barked orders to moor the boat and other tasks, was his wife in the boathouse nursing the crying baby at her breast?

The lady of the house listened, enchanted, as she dipped the ladle into the teakettle. She glimpsed her husband's face. Also captivated, Takumi no Kami strained to listen.

Although he followed the advice for making a good marriage offered by the proverb, Put on indestructible golden sandals and search for a bride seven years your junior, his wife had not given him an heir.

2


A Formal Invitation to the Shogun's Castle

Tominomori Sukeemon was a battlefield courier in the cavalry. He strode over to a corner of the garden, opened the wooden fence gate, and poked out his head to peer toward the river.

"Hey! Boatman's wife, what are you doing there with a crying baby? Don't you realize you're bothering the people who live here? You can't moor your boat below the stonewall. Didn't you see the sign? Get out!"

A page ran up to him. "Sukeemon-dono"

"What?"

"Please come."

"Where?"

"To the tea-ceremony cottage."

"Oh no!" Sukeemon said and slapped his head like he blundered.

"He's in the tea cottage? I didn't know that. Here I am out here shouting."

Tea ceremonies were held in a cottage close to where he stood.

Sukeemon sprinted off. Two people were kneeling in the garden of the tea room built in the style of the tea master Rikyu.

He thought Takumi no Kami had summoned him but was surprised to see the lord's wife. She quietly said, "Sukeemon."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Please give these rice candy chicks to the boatman's child."

"Oh, candy chicks? Thank you."

As sweat of shame ran down his back, Sukeemon bowed his head to the ground instead of the boatman's wife.

With reverence, he raised the candies to his head.

Next Takumi no Kami spoke.

"When you're finished, return here."

Sukeemon bent down from atop the stonewall to hand the candy wrapped in paper to the boatman's wife. He told her the gift was from the lady of the mansion. This news made her cry with the baby. As she placed her palms together and peered inside the fence, the mooring rope was removed, and the boat floated away from Akashi Bridge.

He thought, I'm a failure and no good, nothing like a samurai. I only pretend to be tough. This is not the warrior's way. The lord and the lady didn't scold me but probably despise this lout in their hearts.

Chastened, he returned to the tea cottage garden. He berated himself with cruel words until Takumi no Kami assigned an errand.

He placed both hands in apology on the ground scattered with pine needles.

"What do you wish me to do?"

"Uh, Sukeemon? Tomorrow's the fourth. Attendance at the castle is not scheduled, but a letter signed by the shogun's Council of Elders is on its way. I've been ordered to appear at the castle. I don't know why. Have you heard about this?"

"Yes, the chief retainer informed me a little while ago."

"Asazuki is usually led, but he suffered a slight injury to a leg the other day on the equestrian grounds. Saddle another horse."

Relieved this was the errand, Sukeemon led the mount to the stable. He told his underlings and the attendants the official business would be quick work.

When he came out front the next day, he peered at the blue skies. Kanzaki Yogoro, the superintendent of foot soldiers, had assembled the retinue of attendants and was smoking beside the large brazier in the office.

"You're finished? Well done."

"I switched horses, changed the saddle, groomed him again, and am done."

"Tomorrow isn't the usual attendance day. Why is he going to the castle? Maybe, the occasion is auspicious."

"The steward Kataoka said the lord is going to receive an imperial mandate."

"An imperial mandate to do what?"

"He will host banquets for the imperial envoys visiting from the capital."

"Oh, that's quite an honor."

Tanaka Sadashiro, the personal assistant to the daimyo, seated at a desk turned his attention from updating entries in an accounting ledger to say, "You're talking nonsense. What honor? What's there to be happy about? The host of the envoys, by law, must finance the entire affair with his funds. Thus, feudal lords of clans suspected of being wealthy or disliked by the Council of Elders draw the losing numbers."

The smiling Yogoro listened in silence, but Sukeemon seethed.

"Isn't that what's expected in public service? A simple clan style is useful at those times. It's an auspicious, important mission. How can you say it's a burden?"

"Sukeemon-dono, are you angry?"

"Of course."

Looking uncomfortable, Tanaka pushed the ledger to the side. "Don't think poorly of me. I'm merely concerned about the clan's finances. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Well, it's not coming out of my pocket, so the expenses may justly be called auspicious, even fortuitous."

He stood and left.