I will be dead before sundown.
Yoshihiro Taigen tried to think of other things as he walked slowly down the streets of Jōetsu. He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was that he needed to walk, to move, to escape, if only for a moment, the stifling stillness of the Kota shrine, where at sundown he would kneel an--
Yoshihiro shook his head and glanced around, studying the surrounding city.
Shops and houses lined the street on either side, their bamboo doors left open to the summer air. The noon day sun beat down on the earthen roads, the clear sky overhead giving no hint of the turmoil within his heart. The wind carried the sweet scent of blossoms and woodsmoke. Each step sent up a plum of dust. Yoshihiro’s simple kimono and worn hakama hung heavy in the heat. His swords, thrust through the obi around his waist, were a comforting weight against his side. His fingers gripped the hilt.
It’s not an easy thing, Yoshihiro thought, to walk under the sun and sky and feel the wind on your skin and to know that it will be for the last time. It is not easy to die. Fear coiled deep in his chest, threatening to choke his breath. He did his best to shove it down, to bury it, to ignore its hold. Honor. Courage. Duty. Some things were stronger than fear. He was stronger. He had to be. Still, he knew that his hands would tremble if he didn’t keep an iron grip on hilt of his katana.
As Yoshihiro neared the market, the streets became more crowded. Villagers perused the booths that lined the edges of the road - shopping for silk kimonos, kanji art, or delicate sweets. Children ran from one edge of the street to the other with wooden swords and sugared treats clutched in their hands. A runner pulled a cart down the center of the road, and the white face of a geisha gazed out of a shaded window. On the edge of the crowd, a group of men drank sake in front of a tavern. Yoshihiro could hear the roar of their drunken laughter even over the traffic of the street.
Yoshihiro had no need to push though the crowd. The villagers shuffled out of his way, bowing low and avoiding his eyes. He stared ahead, his face a mask, hoping that no one would see the shadow of fear in his eyes. He passed women wearing decorative bows in their intricately styled hair and men proud in their finest haori jackets. Many carried tantos through their belts, but only he bore a katana.
Only a samurai could.
Yoshihiro turned a corner and paused in front of the dojo. The clang of practice bokens and student’s battle cries drifted through the open doors. He walked closer, turning his head as he passed, glimpsing the edge of a mat, the flash of a hakama, the strike of an oak blade. What would it be like, to be no more than a simple student again? To have life revolve around training and practice, to not carry the weight of responsibility that came with the title of samurai? To bear none of the power?
Yoshihiro had reveled in it once - in the prestige and status and wealth. He had wanted nothing more than to gain as much of each as he could and had spent most of his life fighting for it - his enemies, his lord’s enemies, even the other samurai - for money, or honor, or the favor of the daimyō. He had risen far, these last years. He shook his head. And look at what that’d gotten him.
He turned down a side street, staring at the dirt before his feet, eyes unseeing. The sounds of the market faded into the distance. Without the distraction of the outside world, he could hear his lord’s voice still ringing in his ears, “For the following crime you have been disgraced in the eyes of your daimyō, and are hereby ordered to commit seppuku before sunset tomorrow.”
He gritted his teeth, remembering the agony he’d felt when he’d first heard those words. He had knelt in seiza, on the stone floor before Takeda-sama, as the room reeled around him. He hadn’t been able to move, surrounded by the whispers of the rival samurai and gathered city officials, come to witness his disgrace. He found himself wondering which one of them was responsible. His heart had pounded. His fingers had itched to grasp the hilt of his katana, to defend his honor with the edge of his blade. But he’d only clenched a fist, hidden in the sleeves of his kimono, and bowed low, touching his forehead to the cold stone.
A samurai did not call his lord a liar.
A samurai did his duty.
Even if his duty meant confessing to a crime he did not commit.
And yet, even now anger and fear twisted his gut, like the blade he would soon use to take his own life. Seppuku. An honorable death. There’s nothing else for me, Yoshihiro thought, his feet kicking up dust on the dry path. The toes of his tori had begun to darken with dirt. He rested a hand on the hilt of his katana. Samurai desu. I am Samurai. And so I must do this. He had no choice. He took a deep breath. But am I strong enough to face it? He didn’t know, and that terrified him more than death itself.
The sound of a fight shattered the chaos of his thoughts. His head snapped up. Angry shouts. A cry of pain. Jeering laughter. Without thinking, he followed the noise, turning left down a deserted road. The sounds grew louder and he slowed as he came around the corner building.
On the far side of the street a boy, bristling and narrow eyed, stood with his back to the wall. Three men surrounded him, their fists raised and cruel laughter shining in their eyes. The boy fought back, dodging the larger men’s angry blows and lashing out with strikes of his own.
Yoshihiro waited. The boy saw him first, over the shoulders of the circling men, and glared. This is my fight, his eyes seemed to say, back off. Yoshihiro smiled at the spirit in those eyes. He would have gladly let him alone - he seemed to be doing fine, bruised though he was - until he saw one of the men draw a tanto from his belt. The man brandished the short blade with an eager delight. Fierce he may be, but the boy would have little chance against a knife.
Yoshihiro flicked his blade a few inches from its sheath, just enough for the sharp edge to glint in the fading sun. He hoped a simple threat would be enough. He slid a foot forward through the sand and settled into a deeper stance.
Warned by the sound, one of the men turned. His eyes widened, “Samurai!” The other two jerked around. All three began backing away from the cornered boy.
Yoshihiro kept his face blank. His fingers curled slowly around the hilt of his sword.
Their fists went slack. The tanto fell to the ground. They ran.
Yoshihiro allowed his katana to return to its sheath with a quiet snick. He turned to the boy, “You alright?”
He pushed himself away from the wall, “Fine,” he growled, “I could’ve handled it.” His Japanese sounded halting, like he wasn’t used to speaking the language. Yoshihiro could see bruises beginning to form on his cheek and arms, and blood streamed down his face from a cut above his brow. The boy bent to pick up the abandoned knife; he checked the edge and then slid it into his belt. He carried no other weapons.
Yoshihiro nodded in the direction of the scattered men, “What happened?”
The boy shrugged, wiping the blood from his face with a grimy sleeve, “They thought I was a thief.”
Yoshihiro looked at his ragged clothes and dirt crusted skin. His bare feet, black toes. He raised an eyebrow, “Are you?”
The boy just smiled. Yoshihiro studied him more closely, noting his calloused fingers and wind-toughened skin. A single gold hoop hung from one ear. Thief or no, it didn’t matter to him. He had been accused of worse things.
“You’re samurai?” the boy asked.
Yoshihiro nodded slowly.
The boy continued, a gleam in his eye, “Are you for hire? I could use an extra sword. I’ll be able to pay you once I get back to my ship.”
Yoshihiro didn’t answer. He was bound to his lord. Even though Takeda-sama had betrayed him - had accused him of a false crime and thrown him to the mercy of his honor. It did nothing to change his duty. He was not free to take another path.
He opened his mouth, a ‘no’ on the edge of his breath, and hesitated.
Or wasn’t he? Yoshihiro had not allowed himself to think of any other option before now, but the choice was there. He could refuse seppuku. He could leave. He would never be able to return, they would kill him if he did. He would be shamed. Disgraced. A rōnin. He closed his eyes and lowered his head, mind reeling with emotion. Could he become such a thing? A wanderer, with no lord and no status and no purpose? No honor?
The boy sighed, taking his silence as a refusal, “Well, if you change your mind, I’m camped just outside of the city.”
Yoshihiro managed a nod. He watched as the boy walked down the street, a slight limp in his step, and disappeared around the corner.
He stayed where he was.
He would not be the first samurai to forsake honor for the chance to keep his life. Yoshihiro shook his head, he’d never thought he would be such a coward. And yet was it cowardice? Or would it be honorable to hold to the truth?
He had a choice now, and he almost wished it could be taken away again. It would have been so easy to blindly obey the orders of another man. I don’t know what to do. He looked up at the sky, at the wisps of clouds, highlighted with bursts of fire. A bird darted through the air, a spec of shadow against the light. Would this be his last sun? His last day? His final moments of life? Or would he forsake his daimyō and wander, wherever the road may lead?
His father had taught him to follow the way of the sword. Bushido. The way of the samurai. Where did that path lie now? Should he hold honor above all else? Or search for something more?
Yoshihiro glanced to the west, to the sun, hanging low above the horizon. Nearly sundown. He had to choose.