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First pages

Prologue

‘Get down from there, Tokichiro!’ called the wiry woman, far below on the ground.

‘But mother, I am just in reach of a thrush nest’, replied the straggly youngster of ten or eleven years – he was never sure which - perched on a branch near the summit.

‘You know it makes you look foolish. All the villagers call you little monkey’.

‘Only because they envy my ability to climb trees’, replied the boy.

‘Enough! Come down this instant. It’s time your father and I decided what I’m going to do with you’. Obediently, but with a show of reluctance, the indeed monkey-like boy descended the oak tree; his knee-length home-spun tunic catching on a branch as he did so. His mother gasped as it tore a little on the side – yet more stitching would be required later. The person she referred to wasn’t his real father, Yaemon– but another farmer’s son who had filled in the void his father left after he succumbed to his wounds sustained in military service. Chikuami – that was his name. He had also briefly been a soldier like his father, but now an overworked farmer. Essentially, many farmers spent part of the year as part-time ashigaru soldiers – summoned by the lord of their land, and the rest of the year working the fields.

Of late, he had taken to climbing trees more than before. In a tree, his physical appearance didn’t seem so important. Nonetheless, once on the ground he received a firm shake from his mother.

‘Stop playing around! Apply yourself to your studies - then you might become a priest. And you’ve torn your tunic – again!’. Tokichiro was well-aware that the priesthood of either Shintoism or Buddhism had considerable prestige, but it had no appeal for him.

‘But I want to be a soldier, mother’, objected the boy plaintively.

‘What is it about boys and war? As you can see’, indicating the family’s field with a sweep of her hand, ‘you should be more concerned with looking after our land. Or you could become a priest, but so far I don’t think that looks likely’. He knew his mother had wed Chikuami, due to the large field his family possessed. It was customary for the bride’s family to give a dowry to a woman’s husband – but what she had to offer paled in comparison to Chikuami’s field.

‘Didn’t father serve the honourable lord, Oda Nobuhide?’

‘He did, but only as an ashigaru, like your new father. He received exemption from further service, and left that life behind - to cultivate the land’. Tokichiro suppressed his resentment of his step-father with an effort. It seemed wrong that another man should take his father’s place – especially an ill-tempered drunkard.

‘What’s an ashigaru, mother?’

‘An ashigaru is a foot soldier. He provides occasional service to his daimyo’.

‘Why did father die? You never properly explained this to me’. His mother sighed.

‘He was wounded in a skirmish with the Imagawa, his lord’s arch enemies. He was a good man – this is all you need to know. Why did he die? That is what most soldiers do. Now, I think it’s time I returned you to the temple. Yamamoto sensei seems to think you should apply yourself to your studies more’. Tokichiro considered who she meant, for a moment.

‘He’s just an old fool, with a fondness for young boys. He smells funny too’. Tokichiro received a firm cuff around the head for this remark.

‘Show some respect, ungrateful little wretch. You are the only hope for this family. What are your older sister and I going to do if you don’t apply yourself and better your station? The priesthood is the path to gaining the confidence of great lords. They are masters of refinement, and the ones that make our world turn’.

‘Yes mother’, the boy suddenly said, turning on the engaging charm, which he was beginning to hone to razor-sharp effectiveness. As expected, this disarmed his mother.

‘Good boy’. She ruffled his unruly hair. ‘I’ll take you back’.

 

Yamamoto sensei’s lesson followed its usual meandering course. There were about 30 boys, all seated on floor cushions at low desks at the temple. Tokichiro was interested in maths and calculation, but when the lesson moved into the rote-memorisation of the “Tales of Gempei”, his mind started to wander. He eyed the water-clock in the corner of the room, with its hydraulically driven arms, and judged there was still an inordinate amount of time left in Yamamoto sensei’s lesson. He dreamt of glory, of one day shattering the glass ceiling that confined his world, of making his father look down from heaven with pride. Perhaps he would indeed become an ashigaru like his father had been. The smack on the table jolted his mind back to the present. In front of him, he saw Yamamoto sensei’s shaved head shining with sweat, his round face mottled red with irritation.

‘Tokichiro! Kindly tell the class what I just said’.

Tokichiro racked his mind for an answer. His reply when it came contained much of his opinion of Yamamoto sensei in its tone. He decided to reiterate a common rumour about the man who had helped establish the Minamoto/Hojo Shogunate, in the 12th century.

‘Minamoto Yoshitsune did not truly follow the honourable path of the warrior, but secretly made his way to China and became Chingisu Khan’. At this, the priest grabbed Tokichiro by the scruff of his jimbei.

‘Nonsense. Get out - idle child. Buddha, give me patience with monkeys!’

‘Of course, sensei.’ Tokichiro was glad to escape that hot stifling room anyway. The windows were open, but no breeze stirred that humid day in the month of Fumizuki. Sniggers followed his departure, with the usual monkey references, but he swiftly dismissed them from his mind. After all such remarks followed him everywhere. The nickname itself held no annoyance for him. With his jutting ears, and sunken face, he knew he would never be attractive enough in his own right.

He found another tree around the back of the temple, and swiftly scrabbled his way to its summit. Before long, a bunch of his classmates started filing out, immediately chattering with release. He spotted Saburo, one of those who used his “monkey” nickname a little less than the others. Swiftly he shimmied down the trunk in front of the astonished boy.

‘Hello Saburo! So, you finally escaped that old reprobate!’

‘Tokichiro, I really wish you would pay attention. What’s your stepfather going to do this time?’ At the mention of his name, a tingle went up Tokichiro’s spine. Tokichiro renewed his determination to rise above his circumstances, but in the immediate future, he knew he would be getting another of his step-father’s thrashings when news of his latest mischief reached his ears - as it would when he finished his labour for the day. In the small village of Nakamura, gossip spread faster than wildfire. If Yamamoto sensei didn’t tell him, someone else would.

‘Saburo, he has no power over me here’. Tokichiro pointed to his head. ‘One day I will be free of him. Now, it’s time for battle!’ Battle followed the same pattern. Groups of 6 village boys on each side faced off. Crudely fashioned sticks and pebbles were their weapons. Foolish play to some –but to them it was deadly serious. Looking around, Toki saw the usual group: Nobuyasu, Takahiro, Akechi, Akihiko, and Hisao. Toki’s participation in the battle games had thus far been muted due to his monkey-like countenance, but that was about to change. The contests thus far against the other team – which included the carpenter’s son Hiroyuki – had thus far been rather one sided. Samburu rubbed his ribs gingerly in memory of the last encounter.

Tokichiro for his part knew that the group drew their inspiration from Hiroyuki. Defeating him was the key – cut off the head of the snake and the rest will wither. In his mind, Tokichiro had a couple of strategies. Today he decided to lead the more dominant group into a trap. In the nearby woods, he had found a couple of disused pits which he decided would suit their purposes. Turning to his group, he laid out his plan. He didn’t have long, before Hiroyuki laid down the first challenge.

‘Oi monkey, still here? This is a village of humans. Monkeys belong in the forest and mountains’. Tokichiro’s reply came swift as lightning.

‘Whatever brains your parents didn’t see fit to give you ended up with me. Monkeys will always run circles around dumb oxen’.

‘I’ll thrash the daylights out of you’, screamed Hiroyuki, who was accompanied by his cronies. Tokichiro pulled a smooth pebble from his sleeve, and sent it flying at the oncoming village bully. It struck where he had intended – his shin. The resultant scream of pain told him he’d had the desired effect, to sting but not incapacitate his adversary.

‘Run for it’, Tokichiro yelled to the others, sprinting for the woods as fast as their scrawny legs would carry them. Toki knew they had a brief respite to get as big a head start as possible – before the vengeful pursuit began. He was fast for his diminutive size, but one or two of his companions were slightly less so. A series of yelps betrayed their physical disadvantage as they were caught and kicked to the ground. Hiroyuki’s companions laid on with their make shift swords. Up ahead, Tokichiro saw the bear trap which he had prepared for the occasion. It was covered over with branches and loose earth. Originally it had been a complex rabbit warren which had collapsed in the recent typhoon. A couple of days ago when he should have been at the temple studying, Tokichiro hollowed it out– with today’s “battle games” in mind. The pit itself was about182 cm deep and 120 cm in diameter.

Tokichiro nimbly jumped the gap. Blundering through the undergrowth behind him – enraged by the insult - Hiroyuki failed to see the camouflaged pit. Suddenly the ground gave way and he fell to the bottom with a soft thud. Meanwhile Toki’s companions had disentangled themselves from their pursuers, and joined Toki on the other side of the hole.

‘Here’, he said, and passed around some “spears” – which were essentially broom handles. Toki had chosen his position carefully – the bushes on either side of the hole prevented a flanking movement by Hiroyuki’s companions. Now the broom handles were presented in spear like fashion to ward them off. Any attempt to advance would see them join Hiroyuki in the hole.

‘If you want your leader to live, flee now’, called Tokichiro. He glared at them all. Each of them was physically capable of pulverising the diminutive monkey boy – but they knew they had been outwitted. Their physical aggression and overconfidence had counted against them, and none of them wanted to join their leader in the hole. The groans coming from there suggested a sprained ankle at the very least. Slowly their aggression subsided, and they returned from whence they came, shoulders slumped. Tokichiro glanced down at the humiliated Hiroyuki below him.

‘Well well, what am I to do with you?’ he asked.

‘Just you wait till I get out of here, you wretched, ill-born monkey!’ came the retort. At that, Toki saw a touch of fear come over the faces of his gang. It needed to be nipped in the bud, before it spread further.

‘There is no need for us to be enemies’, he said. ‘You have two choices: your supporters have fled – they never had any loyalty towards you. I could compound your loss of face by telling everyone how you were outwitted by a monkey’.

‘I would kill you first!’ was the venomous rejoinder.

‘Or I could pull you out - on condition you give me your oath of loyalty. I might even let you join us’.

‘Me, serve a monkey? Never!’ The reply was more out of pride than anything else. There was one final step for Tokichiro to take. He glanced around at his grinning companions, Nobuyasu, Takahiro, Akechi, Akihiko, Hisao – and gestured to leave, saying in an exaggerated voice: ‘Oh well, let’s leave him here for the bears and forest animals to find’.

They had gone about sixty metres when Hiroyuki’s pride finally snapped.

‘Wait!’ he screamed. ‘Come back!’ Toki knew he couldn’t come rushing back and seem too eager. He wanted to have power over his bully, and knew that an oath would secure it. With this one, at least. At an unhurried pace, he and his companions returned and looked down on the beleaguered figure below. They said nothing, and it was Hiroyuki who broke first.

‘Get me out. Please!’

‘I don’t know….your oath first’. Tokichiro looked playfully around at his companions.

‘You offered him a place in our gang’, said Akechi.

‘Did I? Well how about it, Hiroyuki? Are you up for a place in our little “gang”?’

‘Yes’, was the whispered reply.

‘I can’t hear you’.

‘Yes!’

Toki nodded with satisfaction – he had him where he wanted. Hiroyuki was someone who could be relied upon to keep what he promised, if you kept him where you could see him. He also sensed Hiroyuki was someone who bore grudges, and shrugged. A good day’s work nonetheless, he mused. Of more worth than that pervert monk’s lessons.

‘I’m going to let you join our gang, and games. But first I want your oath. Someday I will ask you to do something for me, and you will do it, if it is in your power’. Hiroyuki paused as he contemplated this. ‘Well?’

‘You have my word’.

‘Haul him out!’ he ordered. Hisao lowered his stick into the hole, while Nobuyasu held him steady to stop him falling in. A minute later, Hiroyuki tumbled out. He looked up at Tokichiro with a mixture of respect and resentment. The hand that pulled Hiroyuki to his feet was firmer than expected. ‘Now, your little finger’. Tokichiro and the bigger boy locked pinkies. ‘Repeat this: Yubikiri genman uso tsuitara hari senbon nomasu/ Finger cut-off, ten thousand fist-punchings, whoever lies has to swallow a thousand needles’.

Yubikiri genman uso tsuitara hari senbon nomasu’. The promise common among Japanese children was made.

‘You’re mine now, Hiroyuki. Welcome to the group’.

Hiroyuki knew that he had underestimated the monkey-boy. Inside, he was fuming: I will do whatever is asked, but after that - as far as I’m concerned the oath is done. Father always taught me that karma favours those who keep their word, but I refuse to be Monkey-boy’s plaything my entire life.

Tokichiro’s step-father was livid when he came home that night. Yamamoto sensei had sought him out to complain about his step-son’s lack of diligence in class.

‘Idle, useless boy. I’m working hard in the fields all day to provide for your brother, sister and your mother’. Hidenaga was in fact Tokichiro’s half-brother – by way of his step-father, and his step-sister Asahi no Kata was about a year old. ‘The least you can do is apply yourself to your studies!’ The now familiar beating with a bamboo cane followed. His body badly bruised, Tokichiro didn’t sleep well that night.

 

For the next few months, the same pattern of expulsion from the classroom, followed by war-games with other truants of the village ensued. Finally, Yamamoto sensei threw up his hands, and told Chikuami that Buddha’s patience and compassion had limits after all: Tokichiro was a hopeless case. When his step-father arrived home, his temper was already fuelled by sake. This time Chikuami used his fists as well, and Tokichiro’s left eye was swollen shut after he was done.

Thus, as Tokichiro approached his teenage years – he found himself kicked out of school, and forced to help provide for the family. Cutting grass, catching fish and even a brief apprenticeship as a blacksmith were the numerous odd jobs he engaged in during this time. It wasn’t always enough to provide food for the family, and there was the occasional hungry night or paltry meal to contend with. Previous fights with Chikuami had been caused by his lack of diligence at school, and the new ones were caused by his perceived lack of productivity as a worker.

 

The last straw with his step-father happened when Tokichiro had just come of age - which happened when he turned 15 years old. His day by the river had been particularly unlucky, and he had caught absolutely nothing. His step-father, by contrast – had brought home a lot of vegetables from his day in the field. He had long refused to allow Tokichiro to help him, saying he got in his way. This made Tokichiro’s empty-handed return particularly galling, and another bruising beating followed.

Something must be done, his mother thought. She could not afford to leave her husband - yet at the same time she knew that if she didn’t do something, the next beating could be fatal. She decided to put her contingency plan into effect.

‘Toki, I’ve arranged for you to move in with the Takumi family in the next village. You will be taught a trade – I think they said carpentry’.

‘Well their last name gives me a hint’, he retorted sarcastically. Takumi meant artisan or carpenter. ‘You’re sending me away?’

‘Of course I don’t want to, but I fear your step-father will kill you next time’.

‘I don’t want to leave’.

‘I don’t want you to earlier, but you are now an adult. You must find your path in life, and things haven’t worked out so far. I didn’t want to marry again, but Chikuami’s land provides for us. It’s time to do your part’. Tokichiro surprised himself with the resolve in his voice, as he replied.

‘Yes, it is - but it will be on my terms. I’m going beyond the horizon, mother, to see where life takes me. I won’t return until I make a name for myself’. His mother nodded, as if she had half-feared such an answer. She went into the kitchen, and removed a loose floor-board. She reached into the gap, and pulled out a clay-jar, before replacing the board and emptying the coins it contained into a pouch.

‘Take it. I saved it for a rainy day – Chikuami doesn’t know. It is will be enough to keep you going for a while”. Tokichiro embraced his mother, overcome at her gesture. He nodded fiercely, determined not to show tears.

‘Goodbye mother. I will better myself, and when I return I’ll get you a nice place to live in - then you won’t need that brute anymore’. His mother smiled a sad smile at the impossibility of such a thing happening.

‘Goodbye son. Make me proud’.

‘Tell my friends I’ll be back’. It was late, and calling upon them at that hour wasn’t the done thing.

‘I will. Take care’.

Unlike many, I cannot rely on my physical strength to defeat my enemies. I must out-think them instead.

 

During the following months, Tokichiro went from village to village along the Kiso River. He used some of his money to buy needles for sewing cotton. After leaving home, he had decided his skills were better suited to bargaining and negotiating. The plan was to sell the needles to village seamstresses and samurai families – who were producing the cotton used for samurai armour lining, but profits were limited. Life as an itinerant peddler was proving harder than expected.

One summer day, Tokichiro decided to escape the heat of the afternoon by taking a nap under a tree. He was not aware how long he had been dozing, but a voice cut into his slumber.

‘Well, well. What do we have here?’ Tokichiro’s eyes snapped open. Standing over him was a heavily bearded man in a dark blue yukata, a type of light-kimono traditionally worn in the summer. The kimono looked grubby, like it had been worn for a couple of days. Upon closer inspection, the man was probably around 30, but looked older.

‘Good afternoon, mister. Can I help you at all?’ Tokichiro’s wits were beginning to return.

‘The sleeping monkey speaks’. The bearded man laughed - a deep thunder of a laugh. Behind him, another 2 men had emerged into the clearing. Anxiety prickled Tokichiro’s spine, and he did his best to suppress it. ‘This is the Kaito district, and I run the show around here, with the help of these men’. Tokichiro took in the assistants, who appeared to be armed with some razor-sharp sickles, and chain weapons. ‘You are technically on my land. What are you doing here?’

‘I’m a peddler. I’m just passing through’. He got to his feet. ‘With your permission, I’ll be on my way’.

‘Not so fast. Search him’, he ordered his men. Two of them came forward, and went through Tokichiro’s rough, homespun cotton kimono, looking for valuables. They then looked through his cart, and only found needles and a few coins.

‘Please don’t steal my goods mister’. The bearded man looked him over, and saw cunning and guile concealed behind a show of innocence.

He could be an asset to my little band. He doesn’t have much for me to steal, anyway.

‘You look like you’ve had a tough run in life, but I suspect you know how to handle yourself. You’d certainly make far greater profits with me. How would you like to join us?’ Tokichiro blinked rapidly at this sudden change in his fortunes, and considered. He’d tried the honest life, and it hadn’t worked for him.

It’s time to see how the “other side” works. It won’t give me the appropriate means to get back to my family – and I still intend to become an ashigaru at some point. But I might learn something useful.

‘I would love to. Can I ask who I’m joining?’

‘My name is Hachizuka Masakatsu, but please call me “Koroku” – everyone else does’. He gestured to his men. One of them had a shaved head, like a monk. ‘This is Taro. He was training to be a priest, but decided he’d had enough and needed a new path in life. Old habits die hard though, and he still likes to keep his head shaved. This makes him useful to us, as he can pass for a monk and go where others can’t’. He pointed to the next gang-member, who had a sly, ferret-like face. ‘Nobutaro: he comes from Iga, and has contacts among the ninja there. He is an expert at moving silently in the dark’.

‘When do I begin?’

‘You already have’. He clicked his fingers, and one of the coins he had taken from Tokichiro’s supply magically appeared behind the latter’s ear. ‘You can have that back, as a show of goodwill. My men and I control trade on the Kiso River, by exacting a toll on all boats passing between the Saito-controlled and Oda-controlled domains. Either party occasionally asks for our expertise regarding terrain, which is also paid for. That makes us useful, and they turn a blind eye to our other activities. Random travellers, less fortunate than you - have to pay a road tax’. He winked at this, and Tokichiro found himself warming to the man. ‘Think of us as jizamurai, or men of the land. You look like you could do with a decent meal, perhaps even a drink and a wench – then your lessons can begin’.

Part 1: The wanderer

“Strong leaders understand that action cures indecision”

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Chapter 1:

Some years later – in Suruga Province……

 Matsushita Naganori was in fine fettle that spring morning. His father had just risen in Lord Yoshimoto Imagawa’s service. His family thus gained more koku, or rice yield. The previous night’s game of chouhan (dice game) had been profitable. As Japanese coinage was generally of low quality, the coins that he and his friends and played for were Chinese bronze ones, the real deal. The bag he had won was safely tucked away in a chest at home.

As the son of a minor samurai, money usage was considered a little beneath his class; something more suitable for the realm of merchants and other such grubby people. Naganori was fully aware however that his coins purchased the services of a local, discreet courtesan in Sunpu called Shizuka. As far as he was concerned, his gambling addiction was worth all the trouble.

 He turned his horse onto the path leading to the bridge over the Tomoe River. As he approached he saw a ragged young man sitting on the bridge, with his feet dangling over the edge. For a moment, he did a double-take, struck by the monkey-like appearance of the urchin. Is it a man impersonating a monkey, or a monkey impersonating a man? He wondered. His curiosity was aroused, and he could no longer help himself. He rode right up to the urchin.

‘Where are you from, boy?’ he asked in an amused voice. ‘Or monkey. Which is it?’

The urchin replied in an unruffled manner: 'Nakamura, in Owari province. I’m heading eastwards, looking for work in a samurai household’. Of course, he’s no doubt had plenty of monkey jokes before, thought Naganori. Looking down on the urchin, he couldn’t help laughing as he replied.

‘You? Why would anyone want to hire you?’

‘Come to think of it, you aren’t very lord-like yourself. You might not think I have such a pretty face, but the next person I meet might have a more favourable impression’. This spirited, unexpected reply caused Naganori to guffaw. He regarded him in a new light.

‘What’s your name boy?’

‘Tokichiro’.

‘Call me lord, when you address me’.

‘Tokichiro, lord’.

‘And your family name?’

‘None, but I’m from the village of Nakamura, lord’. Naganori considered this for a moment. The name sparked a slightly unpleasant memory. He had known another person, by the last name of Nakamura once – a merchant who had overcharged him for a silk tunic. Well, to his mind anyway. Naganori had refused to pay the specified amount, the argument had escalated – and the old merchant had died under his sword. Such is the freedom of the samurai class. He considered the urchin – who had now gotten to his feet. There was more to this young man than met the eye. He certainly wasn’t attractive, with his monkey-like face and jutting ears. That much would amuse his father, he was certain of that – and the old man needed amusement these days, with his ailing health. However, underneath all that Naganori also detected a keen intelligence.

‘Come with me, monkey’, he commanded. ‘You might as well get used to the name, because that’s what everyone in my family is sure to call you. For now, you will be known as Nakamura Tokichiro, after your village. You are now in the service of the Matsushita clan’.

At last, Tokichiro thought. He’d parted from Koroku a couple of days earlier – on good terms. He was now 19 or 20 years old – one of the two. Koroku had recognised that a life of extortion and banditry was not Tokichiro’s goal in life, and farewells had been heartfelt.

Tokichiro promised to look Koroku up again one day. A man such as him - with his knowledge of the “other side” – would always be useful. Besides, he had given Tokichiro a fine education in management, organisation, motivation, and manipulation. Tokichiro knew he wouldn’t waste it.

 

‘Father, allow me to present my new sandal-bearer’. Matsushita Nobusuke was fifty-five summers old, and plagued by arthritis. Nonetheless, he pulled himself painfully to his feet, and studied Tokichiro.

‘It is my privilege to serve the Matsushita household, lord’, said Tokichiro. If this is how I’m going to make my way in this world, I’ll play along.

‘Well well, Naganori. Who have we here?’

‘An interesting fellow! I believe he may be of use to us’. Nobusuke cackled at this.

‘Does he eat chestnuts? What are we to feed him?’

‘Despite appearances, I believe an ordinary diet will be fine’. This appeared to amuse Nobusuke even further. Tokichiro just let it all slide over him, as he had done throughout his life.

The only way to end the name-calling is to attain a position of power. I will bide my time, Tokichiro thought.

‘Does the monkey speak?’

‘He does, father’. Nobusuke rubbed his hands together with glee.

‘Oh good. Would you like to learn how to play go, Monkey?’

‘Forgive my ignorance, my lord. What is go?’

‘Wonders will never cease - the monkey talks! Go is a game for the brain. My son has never been any good, and I need to keep my mind sharp, as I enter my dotage. I want to rest now, but I will send for you later’.

‘Your will, lord’

 

‘You can sleep there, just outside my room’. Tokichiro looked at the space indicated. It seemed comfortable enough. In any case, his current situation was a means to an end. He aimed to do what no other peasant had done – rise above his station and into the samurai class. Once he achieved that, who knew where his road would end? All he had to aid him in this was his wits, and charm. Those served him well enough in luring Hiroyuki into the forest trap, and then breaking him mentally. He had no doubt that their paths would cross once again.

‘Thank you, lord’.

‘My father has taken a shine to you, which is surprising. He doesn’t get on well with many people. He is not a patient man, so listen carefully when he teaches you the game of go. Perhaps you will fare better at it than I did’.

‘I will do my best, lord’. Naganori considered his new servant for a moment.

‘Yes, I believe you will’.

A short time later, Naganori heard loud laughter emanating from the servants’ dining room. His curiosity was pricked, and he approached to satisfy it. To his amusement, he saw them clustered around his urchin, whose monkey impersonations and jokes had several of them in tears of laughter. Looking up, Tokichiro saw his master present, and rushed to prostrate himself in the correct manner.

‘I see you’ve been making new friends, monkey’.

‘I’m happy that my poor attempts at humour were of amusement to the others, lord’.

‘As you were, monkey’, Naganori replied. Glancing at his favourite serving wench, he said. ‘Attend on me later’.

 

The tread of his master’s foot upon the tatami mats signalled his rising for the day. This was followed by a muttered comment and a brief giggle from the serving wench. Ayumi…..that was her name, Toki remembered. He scrambled up from his sleeping mat, as he only had a moment to freshen up. His new station in life was to be at his lord’s beck and call. He knelt to the side of the door so as not to impede his lord’s exit with his face close to the floor– in the dogeza position. Moments later the rice paper door slid open, and Naganori stumbled out.

Ohaiyou gozaimasu, dono’, (good morning master) Tokichiro called.

‘Good morning, Monkey. Sleep well?’ Naganori used his nickname with ease – his father had after all, set the precedent.

‘Very well, lord’. Tokichiro predicted what was to happen next. He leapt nimbly to his feet, and made sure his lordship’s geta (clogs for outdoor use) were in a position for his lordship to easily step into. Naganori headed for the earth closet – where he stepped into another pair of clogs designed specifically for that purpose. Tokichiro arranged his geta once more, so he could step into them again when he was done. For the moment, Tokichiro’s thoughts were his alone. He glanced over his shoulder to see Ayumi slipping discreetly away to the servants’ quarters.

She might have information of note, Tokichiro thought, and made a mental note to befriend her later. He knew that Naganori served Imagawa Yoshimoto, the great lord of the Imagawa clan, as his retainer. Knowing how power is wielded certainly can’t do me any harm. A sigh indicated the conclusion of his lordship’s ablutions, and a moment later the door opened.

‘I’m famished monkey. Let’s see what they’ve come up with for my breakfast eh?’

‘Certainly, lord’.

 

 In the afternoon, he received a summons from Nobusuke to attend him in his rooms. He was uncertain how he would take to go, but if the senior member of the Matsushita household wanted to play with him, then he wasn’t going to refuse. After sliding open the door, he prostrated himself in the dogeza posture at the entrance.

 ‘Shitsureishimasu’

 ‘Get in here, Monkey! Bring tea! And proper stuff, not the usual muck’. This last was directed at one of the serving ladies, seated on a cushion in the corner of the room.

 ‘I’ll get that ready for you now, lord’ and she withdrew.

 ‘My son and most of his vassals - are somewhat dim-witted. None have proven to be a worthy opponent at go, a very ancient game. Buddhist priests tell us it comes from China. But you are different – an outsider, as it were. Let’s see what you are made of’. With that, the old man unfolded a wooden board, already in place at a kotatsu floor table. A separate box nearby held the game pieces - and he began laying out two separate piles of white and black polished stones. Bewildered, Tokichiro nonetheless held his tongue, remembering Naganori’s earlier advice. Little by little, Nobusuke began to enlighten him.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Greetings! My name is Christopher Glen, originally from Perth in Australia, and I'm a writer of Japan-related books. I love writing, as well as visiting and researching Japanese castles, battlefields, and museums. I've been hooked on the samurai period since watching Kurosawa's film "The Shadow Warrior" while in university, taking Japanese as a minor.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
The idea came to me while attending an Awa Odori festival with an Irish friend in 2014. He encouraged me to develop what I thought was a fanciful - but interesting - storyline.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson, Harry Sidebottom and Conn Iggulden. The latter's work showed me that it was possible to write a fiction series about Genghis Khan, as a Westerner - so I decided I could do the same with Hideyoshi.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
That the samurai period was even more brutal than I imagined - but nonetheless fascinating. And that nothing is truly impossible.

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