The Game

The Game

by

Pawel Daruk

293 SK

Tsuki Ōkina nami

The warbler must have hidden somewhere in the foliage, shying away from its audience, staying silent for the longest time, evidently ignoring Hiro’s desire to listen to it sing. Maybe it even managed to fly away without him noticing? The canopy of an old birch, towering over the courtyard like a giant, ripped umbrella, could have easily housed a whole family of songbirds and Hiro would still fail to spot but a single one. It was spring at its finest, so the temple trees were bursting with life and colours. A lone, timid-natured warbler would have no difficulty hiding in all that vegetation, even from the eyes of a keen observer and an experienced warrior.

“Your move, my lord.”

Hiro nodded, still caught up in his thoughts, forgetting almost entirely about the cup of sake in his hand, dutifully refilled by temple serfs. He was sitting on a folding stool, in front of an undersized lacquer table, with a Shogi board on top of it. Dozens of candles were lit all around him and the courtyard, illuminating the statue of the dragon in the central garden.

It was indeed his turn to move and, as any serious Shogi player, Hiro had pre-planned his next step some five moves ago, taking all major tactical variants into consideration. He was going to send his cavalry to the enemy flank, capturing the hapless but otherwise important red catapult, a small victory he started wrapping up two moves ago. Of course such boldness was putting the black cavalry at risk, as there were red horses and a pair of red ministers right there waiting for it, but such was the nature of warfare – combat would almost always mean an exchange of deaths in some proportion and Hiro, the youngest general in his father’s army, was prepared to bleed a few of his brave pieces in order to secure a crushing win over his opponent.

The small cup in his hand was easily emptied in just one sip. Hiro drank up the lightly chilled wine and extended his arm, getting an instant refill from one of the temple staff. If only the warbler decided to finally sing its song, instead of hiding in the bushes like some drab-coloured chicken, this evening would feel quite complete.

“Your puny catapult is mine, Hanso-san.” Hiro reached for a porcelain piece representing his black cavalry and moved it across the board, right into enemy territory. He then picked up Hanso’s red catapult and put it on the side of the table, amongst all the other defeated pieces.

“I will have my revenge, sir.” Even though his stern face seemed incapable of smiling, Hanso actually had a bit of a sense of humour in him. His cheeks, covered with a proud and well-combed beard, were gradually flushing up as time went by and the sake kept flowing. Normally, on any sober day, this grumpy warrior wouldn’t be heard saying more than a few words at a time, and even that reluctantly. But pour enough wine down anyone’s throat and their tongue will almost certainly loosen up.

Between the two of them they must have emptied a whole bottle of Isojiman’s finest by now, or maybe more. And the evening was only getting started. Of course, if Hanso’s giant frame was to be considered – and the man towered over most of the troops in his unit by over half a head – he could probably drink a whole river of alcohol before getting as much as a little tipsy. Hiro, however, was beginning to notice a tingling sensation in his toes and on the tip of his tongue, a clear signal that the rice wine was going to his head. No more than a few cups now, he promised himself. With the first cup, man drinks sake, the second cup, sake drinks sake, the third cup, sake drinks man – the old proverb wasn’t particularly popular amongst Prefecture soldiers, but Hiro believed in it heartily.

On the other side of the courtyard, a brass gong was struck rhythmically five times, indicating the coming of the Hour of Dog. It was getting seriously dark and the temperature was now dropping, bringing about some much needed freshness. The warbler, hidden on one of the trees nearby, was still stubbornly quiet.

The game of Shogi went on. Hanso’s next move was to regroup his infantry and advance with one of his pawns. He could have easily captured Hiro’s daring cavalry, if he wanted, but instead he relied on his foot soldiers to regain the initiative and reinforce his position on the board. It was an odd choice, undoubtedly. One might think he maybe didn’t go for the kill because he saw through Hiro’s ruse, aimed at stretching his lines and exposing his central rank, but the truth was simpler: Hanso preferred to do battle with pawns. The man was notorious for his ability to command common soldiers on the battlefield. Give him ten boys, the word was and he would make ten men of them within the cycle. Of course Takashi lords and courtiers couldn’t be more furious when this peasant-born soldier attained the honourable rank of gunso in the Dragon’s army, but Hiro never doubted his decision to promote him. By fishing Hanso out of the conscripted ranks of the Ito clan, he gained not only a talented soldier and skilful tactician, capable of engaging whole enemy units with just a small detachment of ashigaru, but also an excellent Shogi opponent, challenging his own strategies every time they played.

“You’re a man of many qualities, Hanso-san.” Hiro picked up his brave cavalry and moved it back a bit, saving it from being taken. “Tell me, what is your greatest strength?”

The bear-sized warrior took some time to answer the question, as he often would. He had a tendency to analyze conversations in a military manner, sending trained words into battle only if they were under precise, definite orders. Sentences full of etiquette and pomp foreign to Hanso as the desert to rain.

“I never married,” he said eventually, in a low voice. Then he moved another of his pawns forward, mounting what appeared to be a small counterattack manoeuvre.

Hiro realising the jest, rewarded his joke with a sincere chuckle.

“By the Kami, this will simply not do! We will have to find you a match sooner or later. I’m sure there are plenty of ladies out there who would love to make the acquaintance of a fine soldier of the Prefecture.”

Hanso replied with a laugh of his own, stiff and quiet, like a rock rolling down a grassy hill. “You honour me, my lord,” he added a moment later, whilst looking down obviously uncomfortable with the compliment.

Hiro could see it perfectly, the samurai’s study of all areas of life, and the years in Court taught him to notice even the slightest change in demeanour; the slightly arched back, the tilted head, the frequent blinking. Obvious signs of discomfort, triggered by the numerous eyes around and by that silly marriage joke – any leader worthy of his men’s loyalty would take notice of that, and not make the mistake again. Unless of course, that leader had just had a bellyful of sweet Isojiman’s sake to cloud his judgement. Hiro frowned at the thought, putting his cup away. Damned be Isojiman’s brew, the whole bottle of it! And damned be the courtly etiquette and politics, with all their caste segregations, centuries-old traditions and social taboos, binding and muzzling nobles and commoners alike. Without them, things would have been so much simpler in the isles! And wasn’t that what Bushido was really about? The purest peak of excellence and loyalty, with no place left for petty, negligible distractions?

Life outside the prefectural cities has always been less complicated. Hiro believed the life of a simple soldier, like Hanso, who could devote his entire existence to the service of his daimyo, unrestrained by any other responsibilities, must be easier? Taking orders instead of giving them, pursuing victory instead of building clan legacy, Hanso was the embodiment of warrior’s spirit, even if he wasn’t a high ranking samurai with an Emperor-given name. And that was his greatest strength.

“Very well, Hanso-san.” Hiro nodded lightly. “Now tell me, what do you think is your worst weakness?”

There was some movement, finally, in the canopy of the eldest birch on the courtyard. A Silent flutter of tiny, brownish wings, nervously jumping from one branch to another, the warbler was getting ready for its evening concert.

But this was not the only unusual movement that caught Hiro’s attention. One of the temple priests, a man in his late fifties, stealthily produced a knife from inside his robes and hid it inside his sleeve. His wrinkled face was dripping with sweat. His eyes, reddened like those of a chronic drunk, stared all around him. He looked confused, lost in his own head, as if he suddenly awoke from a dream and found himself in a place he’d never seen. No one else in the Temple of the Heaven Dragon seemed to have noticed, all eyes focused on the young Lord and his odd friend sat at the Shogi table.

“Ryu’s soldiers do not have weaknesses, my lord.” Hanso leaned over the Shogi board and pushed his remaining catapult right into the crowd of opposing pieces, capturing a black scholar.

“True enough.” Hiro nodded, pleased with the answer. “But only if you root them all out, sergeant. Shortcomings in a man’s character are not unlike weeds in a garden.” Tilting his head as if to give weight to his statement, not giving away the fact he was actually monitoring the odd priest stood in the observers.

The elderly servant got up – thus attracting some attention, as it was a breach of protocol to leave before the game had ended – and started shuffling towards the Shogi players. His foot movement and body posture were clumsy at best, bringing to mind a vision of a puppet entangled in its own strings.

“You’ll find only one shortcoming in me, my lord.” Hanso straightened up his back, like a soldier about to be reprimanded. He had an innate ability to look serious and stiff even after seven cups of gently sweet sake.

“Oh? And what would that be?”

“The length of my sword.”

A few priests watching the game burst out laughing. Hanso’s massive no-dachi was actually over five foot long. Out of the laugher a shrill cry, as the old priest sprang with surprising athleticism.

“DIE.” The voice was not his own, booming, low and cold from the old man’s cracked lips. The old man threw himself at Hiro, the knife appearing in a flash.

Hiro unsheathed his sword in one, perfectly smooth motion, polished to excellence in the finest fencing schools of the Takashi clan. He could have taken the priests head, but instead he sent the tip of his blade through the old man’s fingers and hand, nearly severing it and throwing the knife high in the air. Almost as quick and without thought Hanso was on the man, his considerable weight advantage forcing him to the courtyard’s cold stone pavement.

“Guards.” Hiro’s voice was placidly calm, as if nothing really happened that would require any sort of excitement. The blood splashed on the Shogi board could have just as well belonged to one of the pieces. “Take this man into custody and bind him well. Pay no attention to what he says. Summon a Seishin na Goei, quickly.

A swarm of armed samurai, all battle-ready took the captive from Hanso and escorted him out of the courtyard, shouting loudly at him and at each other. The commotion was worse than in a grain market on the last day of the Cycle of Golden Harvest. Nervous soldiers started searching the temple for any other potential assassins. Heavenly Dragon priests gathered nervously, watching soldiers at work, singing and reciting mantras, blessing the Kami for their intervention. High above, in the canopy of the eldest birch, the warbler disappeared.

“Are you hurt, Hanso-san?” Hiro sighed and returned to the Shogi board, sitting back on his folding stool. Tonight’s game had proved to be more of a test than he had expected.

“No, my lord.” The giant sergeant answered, dusting himself off as he returned to his feet.

“Yes you are,” Hiro pointed to a Tanto sticking from his Gunso’s thigh.  

“Go and seek out the physician, Daisuke. He’s been stationed in the village at the bottom of the hill. Have him tend to your wound.”

Hanso bowed down, dutifully acknowledging his orders. It took him a while to realise that he had been, in fact, injured. His hakama was slowly changing colours on the left leg, from blue to dark blue to wet black. There was a bloodied tanto, sticking out of his thigh like a lone branch on a massive tree trunk. The assassin must have hidden this weapon somewhere in his garb.

Hanso glanced at the dagger briefly with a mixture of surprise and bemusement, and then slowly walked away towards the temple buildings, picking up his no-dachi along the way.

“What will you do with the man, my lord.” He commented with his back to Hiro, stopping in front of the wide oak doors leading out of the Temple. Hiro barely heard his quiet, throaty voice. “Will you let him live?”

The young general looked back at his sergeant and at the dagger still stuck in his thigh. He didn’t say anything at all, as he didn’t have an answer for him, not even a remote one. But his father and his countless teachers raised him to lead the whole of Takashi clan one day – he was an heir to the Throne and to the title of the Shōgun of Jwar Isles. He was required to have an opinion on every matter of importance.

Hiro opened his mouth and then frowned, biting his tongue. Would you let him, Hanso-san, he wanted to ask.

He couldn’t, though. Not with all the curious ears crowding up the temple courtyard, like a flock of seagulls. Besides, he already knew what Hanso’s answer would be anyway. His greatest strength was not his lack of union. It was the fact that he would always do what needed to be done, regardless of the cost.

Hiro hoped he had the same strength of character.

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