The battle was over, but still Kazuteru ran. He had duty to fulfill. The young samurai ignored the howling of his lungs and the ache within his muscles and bore forth his sacred burden: a dagger the length of his hand. His lord awaited it on the valley top above him.
It had rained all day yesterday and most of the morning too, an anomaly in the high summer. The sun shone bright now, but too late. Hundreds of feet and hooves had trampled the sodden slope and churned it into a swamp. Kazuteru’s armor and underclothes, which had once been a brilliant blue, were now a mottled gray, and his legs were heavy with plastered clay and turf.
His hands alone were clean, protected as they had been under gauntlets and gloves. Bared, the flesh had remained immaculate enough to hold the dagger. But the humidity and the layers of metal, cloth, and wood he wore had made his entire body slick with sweat. It stung his eyes and he could taste it on his lips, and when the ground gave suddenly beneath him as he ran, he felt it on his hands also. His wet palms fumbled, and the dagger slipped from his grasp.
The blade caught the light as it fell. It winked white once at him, and then plunged into the slimy dirt and vanished with a sad little sound. Kazuteru let a smaller, sadder whimper escape him. His waiting lord had a thousand swords and spears with him already, but they would not suffice. They were not ceremonial and pure. The dagger, which had been, was now sullied.
He fell to his knees and plunged his left hand into the muck. It vanished up to his wrist. He began to grope blindly, hastened by desperation but slowed by fear of the blade’s edge.
Something to his right moaned suddenly, a pained voice so pitiful that it stopped Kazuteru. He saw a man twisted where he had fallen, one leg so shattered and bent that his toes almost touched his hamstring. The samurai had no mind left for words; his eyes pleaded with Kazuteru to kill him, and for a moment he thought to oblige.
But then Kazuteru realized that the man wore the red of the enemy, and for that he left him. The man’s agony was but one voice in dozens.
His fingers touched blunt metal. He pulled the dagger free, and filth came with it. Kazuteru tried to wipe the blade clean as best he could. Once when he was a child—too young to know about sacrilege—he and his friends had hidden a small cast-iron Buddha in an ox’s feed just to see if the beast was too stupid to notice. It had been, and three days later they had found the Buddha again. Looking at the dagger now, he was reminded of that serene, shit-smeared face.
Water. He needed water.
But there was none here, save for that which had soaked into the ground; this was where the fighting had been. There was no time to return to their distant camp, where he had just run to collect the blade in the first place. The only place he could look was up the slope, toward the valley top they had stormed not one hour ago.
He began to run toward the hilltop once more, skidding and stuttering in the mud, dagger in his filthy left hand with his right hand held high and free of any contamination. Ahead of him, overlooking the entire valley, Lord Kanno’s castle burned. One of the smaller curved roofs groaned loudly, and then collapsed inward. A ragged cheer carried on the distant breeze, and a fresh billow of black smoke erupted into the sky.
There, in the corner of Kazuteru’s eye—a mangled man lying against a barricade of bamboo stakes, seemingly drunk as he fumbled about himself. His numb hands were trying to put a canteen to his lips. Clear water dribbled from the mouth of the ray-leather bladder, catching the light.
Kazuteru hesitated, his conscience caught, but it was clear the man was beyond any help that water could possibly bring. He squelched to his knees beside the samurai, and tried to take the canteen. The man held on stubbornly.
“I need that water, friend,” said Kazuteru gently.
“W’tr?” mumbled the man, his eyes distant. Still he tried to remember how to drink, still his hands corpse-tight upon the canteen.
“Our Lord Shinmen requires it,” said Kazuteru.
“F’r Lord Shinm’n,” the man said. Out of instinct alone, he obeyed that name and released his grip. His eyes closed, something that wasn’t blood or water bubbled out of his mouth, and then he died.
Kazuteru muttered his thanks to the man’s departing soul as he began to slowly pour the water on the dagger. It was not quite enough, one clod of black mud remaining. There was nothing else to do but stick his tongue out and lick it clean, and then he knew the taste of the battlefield. He spat, and then the dagger was as clean as it was going to get. Back it went into his pristine right hand, and then he ran once more.
The ground up on the valley top was not so bad, some solid green turf remaining. Nothing slowed him as he weaved his way through the groups of surviving samurai toward where the lords and generals awaited. A cadre of exhausted foot soldiers, all as dirty as Kazuteru, knelt in a clustered circle around their superiors, facing inward to bear witness to this final act. Lungs were still panting, open wounds being treated.
Kazuteru dropped into a walking crouch as he drew close to the mock court, holding the dagger above his head respectfully. Men parted for him until he came to where his lord, Sokan Shinmen, sat on a small stool. He dropped to one knee and waited.
The lord was sitting in his underarmor of toughened cloth. During the battle an arrow had thumped into the plate of his chest armor almost directly over his heart, and he had removed the heavy cuirass to nurse the bruise it had left. The narrow escape had given the lord a spark of manic joy in his eyes that he was unable to conceal.
Shinmen took the proffered dagger and examined it. Kazuteru held his breath. The lord raised an eyebrow for a moment at the drops of water upon the blade, but he said nothing. He shook it dry and nodded appreciatively at Kazuteru. The samurai bowed low, and then backed away on his knees to melt into the crowd. The taste of mud still in his mouth, relief and pride flooded him; he had done his duty.
“Lord Kanno,” said Shinmen, turning back to the three who awaited in the center of the gathering, “do you know what follows now?”
Lord Kanno was the defeated enemy, and he had nervous tears in his eyes as he knelt. Regaled in a full set of miniature armor, he could have escaped from some comedy theater. He was nine years old.
“I think so,” the boy lord said. “I have to perform seppuku. But . . .” the boy began, then faltered.
“But?” said Shinmen.
“But I don’t know how, Lord,” Kanno said sadly. His small shoulders wilted. “I was never allowed to see. I wanted to, but Father said I was too young.”
An affectionate laugh rippled through the crowd of samurai. Only two men remained silent. One was Kanno’s General Ueno, who knelt beside his lord. He was an old man with thinning gray hair that hung disheveled around him. It was he who had been truly in command of the enemy, and he who had lost the day. His eye was bruised, his nose was bleeding, and he bristled with futile venom.
The other stood behind the kneeling pair, his face emotionless for it would be obscene to show joy in front of defeated enemies, and it was he above all the men there who had defeated the Kanno clan. His armor was plain and practical, without any mark of garish boasting save for perhaps the dents and scrapes that spoke of how much fighting he had seen and yet still stood. He was Munisai Shinmen, commander of the lord’s foot soldiers, and so trusted and beloved was he by Lord Shinmen that the lord had bestowed the honor of his own name upon him. Now he waited for command patiently, one hand upon the swords at his hip.
The mirth subsided, and then Lord Shinmen spoke on. “Seppuku is not difficult, Lord. It is what we are bred for.”
Kanno still looked nervous. “My brothers told me that you put a sword in your belly. Is that right?” the boy said.
“They were right, Lord.”
“But doesn’t that hurt?” asked the boy.
Shinmen smiled at the innocence. “I should imagine it does. But not for long, Lord. A moment of pain, and then your honor is restored and your spirit is free to wander the heavens and be reborn. It is a good death,” he said.
“But I never lost my honor! It was my father, Lord! It was he who declared war on you!”
“The clan is as the lord,” said Shinmen. “This is the way of nobility. The body changes over the years but in you is your father and your grandfather, as my father and my grandfather are in me, all the way back through to the start of time. In you all of their honor rests—will you disappoint them?”
“No! I’m not afraid . . .” said Kanno, panicking because he could not explain himself and like all children feared looking small in front of adults. “It’s just . . . I . . . I don’t know!”
“Well then, perhaps your general could show you how it’s done?” said Shinmen. The kneeling Ueno raised his maddened eyes.
“If you think I’m going to give you cowards the honor of that, you dogs can—” He began snarling, spit flecking from his lips.
“Where is your dignity?” snapped Munisai, speaking for the first time. “Your lord needs your help, and you act like this? Are you samurai, or did someone dress a shit-tossing peasant in the general’s armor this morning?”
“A cunning ruse, perhaps,” said Shinmen.
“You’re one to talk of ruses, Shinmen! Accepting our gold and feigning peace like some demon fox! And you”—the general growled, jerking his head toward Munisai—“you are one to talk of samurai! Instead of standing on the field like any true warrior would have, you sneak around our rear like some common thief!”
“That rear was where I found you hiding,” said Munisai.
“I was protecting my lord!” Ueno shouted.
“A fine job you did of that,” said Shinmen, and laughter rippled around the gathered men. There was no warmth this time. Ueno could do nothing but glower at the ground and try to endure the humiliation, but it was much too great to bear.
“To the hells with you all!” he spat. “Very well, I will show him! Give me the blade!”
“What of your death poem?” asked Shinmen.
“I have nothing I want to say to you. Tossing coins to stray cats,” said Ueno, as he unbuckled his armor, hands furiously jerking the clasps open. He placed the cuirass on the ground before him and rose into a dignified kneel.
“The blade,” he commanded. Shinmen wrapped the dagger in a length of white silk, and then it was conveyed respectfully to the general, who took it wordlessly.
“I suppose I will have the honor of the great Munisai Shinmen taking my head?” Ueno sneered as he placed the tip of the dagger to the side of his stomach.
Munisai looked to Lord Shinmen, who nodded once. He moved to the side of the general and drew his longsword. The elegant weapon was dulled with use, and so it did not gleam as Munisai held it high, ready to flash the killing stroke.
“I am ready, General,” he said simply.
“Are you watching, my lord?” asked Ueno. The boy uttered a small affirmative. Ueno took a few deep breaths, licked his lips, and steeled himself.
“This is how a samurai dies,” the old man said, and suddenly threw himself backward at Munisai.
It was impressively fast for an old, exhausted man. He had sprung onto his feet and thrust the bulk of his weight upward into Munisai before the samurai had a chance to react. Munisai was knocked off balance, and barely managed to catch the dagger as Ueno span and stabbed it downward, seeking the gap in the armor at his neck.
Munisai was staggering and encumbered with holding his sword, and there was a hanging second where it seemed to the onlookers that the tip of the blade would surely split his throat. But he found his footing once more, and then it was simply a matter of age and but the work of a moment to roll himself around and throw Ueno over his hip. The general landed heavily, and before he could rise Munisai had stabbed savagely downward with his sword, impaling him through the chest.
It was a brutal blow, deliberately crude as to be insulting. The two locked eyes as the general lay dying, and Munisai knew Ueno understood the affront. But the old man did not make a single sound. He merely mouthed wordless curses at Munisai as his strength left him. Eventually his lips ceased to move, his eyes glazed over, and then Ueno was still.
“Disgusting,” said Munisai in the silence.
He withdrew his sword, wiped the blood off the blade, and then sheathed the weapon. Only at that signal did the bodyguards release Lord Shinmen; they had thrown themselves around him as a human shield as soon as Ueno had pounced. Munisai had trained them well.
“He hated you,” said Lord Kanno quietly. He hadn’t moved from where he knelt. “You killed his son last summer, Munisai.”
“Then he let that cloud his judgment,” said Munisai. “What of his honor? His son died well, in equal combat. He did not. We gave him the chance of an honorable death, and . . . That was not the way it should be done, Lord Kanno.”
“Then what is?” asked the boy. Munisai hesitated, but then he saw the look of worry in the child’s face. The earnestness of it sparked something within him that he had not felt in many years, and slowly he began to speak in a soft tone.
“We are samurai, Lord. Death defines us. We must become a master of dealing it to our enemies, yes, but most of all lose all fear of our own. Seppuku is the ultimate test of this. You must draw the blade across your stomach. Some rare men will complete the ritual in its entirety, turn the blade, and draw it back across. But rare men indeed, for there must be complete silence. If you whimper or cry out, it proves that you are afraid, and thus not samurai and never were. If you are too cowardly to force the blade up, or if you lose yourself to blind emotion like Ueno, then all the worse.”
He cast another scornful gaze at the general’s body, and then nodded for the boy to take in the ugliness of the thing—the way it lay twisted in the mud, the hatred still upon the face, bestial and fragile and spiritless. After a few moments Munisai turned and gave another gesture. A brush, ink, and a scroll of silk affixed to an easel were brought forth and placed before Lord Kanno.
“Ueno hated me?” said Munisai. “Then he should have damned me in his death poem. The ritual must have dignity. The ritual must have calm. To write the death poem is to cleanse yourself of all emotion. Put all your fear, or your anger, or your sadness into the poem, and then you are empty and free to do the act as it should be done.”
“A poem?” said Kanno. “I’ve never written a poem.”
“It is not difficult, Lord,” said Munisai. “It does not have to be a poem proper, no rhyme or rule . . . Just say what you want.”
Kanno thought for some long moments. All watched silently as the boy dipped the brush into the black ink and began to slowly write. His brow furrowed in concentration as he did so, taking care to be perfect.
Kazuteru watched Munisai as the boy wrote. He had never heard his commander speak more than curt orders, let alone give a speech. Now the man was staring at the child with a strange intensity. It looked almost like longing.
Eventually the boy sat back on his knees and placed the brush aside. Munisai looked over his shoulder.
“Is it good?” the boy asked anxiously.
Munisai nodded. Kanno smiled happily, proud of his work. He withdrew his clan’s centuries-old seal and stamped it below the letters. Then the silk was folded and sealed, placed into a lacquer box, and whisked away. It would be joined, after the ritual, by a lock of the lord’s hair and sent to the boy’s mother as proof that he died well. She would smile as she wept.
A sheet of white hemp was laid on the muddy ground while Lord Kanno stripped out of his armor. The ceremonial blade was pried from Ueno’s death grip, cleaned in a pail of water, and then given to Kanno. It seemed the size of a sword in his hands. He knelt, and pointed it toward himself.
“From one side to the other?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Munisai. “It won’t hurt for long, I promise, Lord.”
Munisai drew his sword once more, and this time, because it was the boy, he dribbled water along his blade also. A pure blade for a pure young soul, the weapon glistened in the afternoon sun as he raised it now, a bar of light almost. He nodded at Kanno.
“Your ancestors depend on you, Lord. So be brave,” he said.
“Thank you, Munisai,” said the boy.
He turned and bowed deeply to Lord Shinmen and the gathered samurai one last time, rose to his knees, and then thrust the dagger into his belly. He doubled over and his eyes went wide.
Of course they did not expect a child to force the blade across himself. Munisai heard the boy’s sharp intake of breath, and before Kanno could cry out and shame himself, he slashed the sword down perfectly and struck the boy through the neck. There was a dull thump as the head rolled free, and then the small body toppled sideways. The white hemp turned red.
The gathered samurai, whether lord or common soldier, bowed deeply to the corpse, and a sigh of admiration ran through them all. Such immaculate bravery from one so young.
“What did his death poem say, Munisai?” asked Lord Shinmen.
“That is not for me to say, my lord,” said Munisai, and though Shinmen could have ordered him to do so, he gave his lord such a look that Shinmen questioned him no further.
When the bleeding stopped, they took Kanno’s head and his body and cleaned them. Then they wrapped them in a white funeral shroud, anointed them properly, and cremated the boy. They spread his ash on the wind so that it might travel to the ends of Japan, and then his name was added honorably to the centuries of names on his clan’s gravestone. It would be the last to ever be chiseled. Years later a tree had sprung from near the spot of the seppuku, and the local peasants knew their brave lord must have returned to them. They wove a sacred rope and tied it around the tree so that Kanno’s spirit might never leave again, and for centuries after pregnant noblewomen would visit the place and pray that their children might have the same courage as the young lord.
General Ueno, however, was left for the crows.
The war had been the fault of the old Lord Kanno. The summer before, the old man had suddenly decided to try to recapture his youth and play soldier again. Lord Shinmen was engaged in a war with a neighbor to the north, and so Kanno reasoned that Shinmen could not protect the valuable paddy fields on his eastern border. He was right, for a while.
Kanno’s mistake was to go riding in winter. Buoyed by the successful annexation of the paddy fields, the old lord felt twenty in his heart again. In his knees, however, he was still very much his seventy years, and the frozen mountain paths were treacherous at the best of times. Borne from the bottom of the canyon where it was found, his corpse was anything but regal.
Kanno had been a lecherous old goat. He had fathered many sons to many embittered women, and he harbored a great fear that his boys loved their mothers more than him. Not one of his four previous heirs had lived beyond nineteen, by accident or design, and now his fifth would not see ten.
The newly installed boy lord’s advisors had offered a truce in the springtime. Shinmen had feigned acceptance of the ridiculous terms—no mention of returning the stolen land—and so two days ago, with the coming of the summer, Shinmen had launched a lightning raid. His small force had overrun the watchtowers and outposts with such speed that Kanno’s army had barely had time to rally here in the very heart of their domain.
Were it not for the rain the day before slowing them, there would not have been time at all for Kanno’s men. But those few bogged-down hours had given Ueno time to entrench his army around the castle and force Shinmen into a bitter uphill fight. Hundreds of men had died simply because of the vagaries of weather.
But what was victory without sacrifice? Blossom without fragrance, nothing more.
Munisai sat down among the flowers. He held a man’s hand as the samurai oozed his last breaths out. He had been run through by a lance, the blade entering at his collarbone and exiting at his pelvis. Skewered entirely, but somehow the man had lingered this long with the wood of the shaft still wedged through him. He gurgled and writhed. His eyes met Munisai’s for a moment, desperate and pleading.
“It’ll be over soon,” said Munisai. “You did well. We won.”
Excerpted from Child of Vengeance by David Kirk. Copyright © 2013 by David Kirk. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.