Authors: Lensey Namioka
Zenta began to talk, obviously trying to distract their attention from the various discomforts. “You know, this elaborate escape scheme is just the sort of thing that Hambei would have enjoyed. It's too bad that he is missing the fun.”
Matsuzo stared at Zenta in amazement. “You sound as if you actually liked him!”
“No, on the whole I despised him,” said Zenta. “But he did have a sense of humor, and some of his pranks were really ingenious. I remember the time when the lord whom we served ate too many roasted chestnuts. He had a terrible stomach cramp, and do you know what Hambei did? He . . .”
“Stop!” moaned Matsuzo. “I don't want to hear any more!” He grabbed a rail and leaned his head against it until the wave of nausea passed. “How much longer will it be before we reach the place where Kagemasa is stationing his men?”
“It won't be much longer,” replied Zenta. “Look, the floats at the head of the parade are making ready to turn north.”
Lady Yuki had sent a messenger to Kagemasa, asking him to provide horses at the place where the procession of floats reached its farthest point north. Since the procession moved so slowly, the messenger had reached his destination a long time ago. Kagemasa, who had promised to give them shelter, would have had time to make his preparations.
But because of the slow progress of the parade, Zenta's escape had certainly been discovered already. Perhaps the alarm was now being given to all of Nobunaga's men throughout the city. At every intersection Matsuzo could see groups of samurai wearing the warlord's insignia. It seemed to him that the samurai were scrutinizing the crowd with unusual vigilance.
“Do you think that Nobunaga's men are searching for you already?” he asked.
“I doubt it,” said Zenta. “Nobunaga has more important matters to occupy him. These men are just a precaution against insurgents making use of the festival to start riots.”
Matsuzo was not reassured. He knew that Nobunaga had the reputation of being a man who never forgave or forgot. He would exert every effort to hunt down a man who, however insignificant, had dared to defy him.
The parade of floats was now moving parallel to the Kamo River, which divided the city east and west. In the far distance before them, slightly to their right, was Mt. Hiei, its outline sharp against the brilliant blue sky. Soon they would come to the most northerly point of the route and the end of their ride.
At the intersection with Third Avenue, the procession made one of its numerous halts. During a momentary lull in the music, Matsuzo heard a samurai asking the rope pullers whether any of them had seen a man walking with a bad limp.
Matsuzo's heart skipped a beat and he expected the men in the cart to look at Zenta. But all shook their heads at the question. Apparently when the two of them pushed their way through the dense crowd and climbed aboard, no one had noticed the way Zenta walked. Matsuzo wiped his brow as the carts moved again.
At the next halt Zenta pointed and whispered, “There! Behind those trees there are some men waiting with horses. They must be Kagemasa's men.”
Descending from the musicians' balcony, Zenta and Matsuzo moved forward to thank the man who had welcomed them aboard. He cut short their expressions of gratitude. “I am a peaceful merchant who wants to know nothing about the affairs of samurai, and I am only doing this as a favor to Lady Yuki.” His eyes, however, were more friendly than his words. He added softly, “There are some soldiers to the right of our cart whom you will wish to avoid.”
They climbed down from the cart, carefully keeping it as a screen between themselves and Nobunaga's men, who were sweeping their eyes over the crowd.
“You forgot to return the flute!” said Matsuzo, noticing the instrument tucked in Zenta's sash.
“I may need it very soon,” said Zenta. Matsuzo was mystified. Zenta didn't know how to play the flute, and as a weapon the small bamboo flute was next to useless. But he had no time to think about the puzzle, because they were now faced with a difficult problem.
When they stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the spectators, Zenta's limp was not very noticeable. To reach Kagemasa's men and the horses, however, they had to leave the thickly packed crowd and cross a relatively open expanse. As soon as they became isolated, Zenta's limp would instantly attract attention.
While the eyes of the crowd were fastened on the colorful spectacle in front of them, Zenta took out the flute and, to Matsuzo's horrified astonishment, gave the man next to him a sharp crack across the shin.
Matsuzo's “Why did you do that?” was drowned out by the man's howl of pain.
Zenta's victim had been in a bad mood since early morning. As he watched the parade, he was gloomily calculating how he could pay for the extravagant kimonos that his wife and daughter had wheedled him into buying. A bubble of resentment had been growing inside of him all day, and the sudden sharp pain in his shin exploded the bubble. Snarling, he turned on the man next to him and gave him a vicious kick on the knee.
He was unfortunate in his choice of victim. This man had earlier eaten a meal of raw fish which had not been perfectly fresh. The meal lay fermenting in his stomach and, combined with the hot sun, was producing in him a burning hatred of the whole world. Subjected to this totally unwarranted attack, he bared his teeth like a wild beast and returned the kick with a vengeance.
He missed his target and instead kicked a father who was holding his son high in the air to give the baby a view of the parade. The father dropped the baby. Zenta promptly caught the baby and handed it to its startled mother. While she tried to soothe the screaming child, he slipped to another part of the crowd and wielded his flute again.
“I can see that you're trying to distract the attention of Nobunaga's men, but there must be a kinder way,” said Matsuzo, looking sympathetically back at the groaning father.
“Nobunaga's men are searching for a limping man,” explained Zenta. “I'm supplying them with a dozen limping men.”
He was succeeding in his objective. Soon, a growing number of men in their vicinity were hopping on one foot and clutching their shins.
Watching them with a grin, Matsuzo said, “You don't know what you've started. This dance of hopping on one foot will become a regular part of the Gion Festival. A hundred years from now, people will be asking how it originated.”
The crowd seethed and foamed. The more faint-hearted limped to a safe distance away, but most of the casualties were hurt just enough to be angry. They preferred to stay and fight. Somehow a number of float carriers in the parade became involved in the fight, and a few of the yama began to toss like ships on a stormy sea. Looking at them, Matsuzo felt a return of his seasickness.
Nobunaga's men had been instructed to suppress rioting. Grimly and efficiently, they marched into the crowd and set about restoring order. After that they seized every man who showed signs of limping.
But long before that Zenta and Matsuzo had taken advantage of the confusion to make their escape. By the time they reached the pine trees where Kagemasa's men were waiting with horses, Zenta was very pale and limping badly. But it didn't matter. They were safe.
It was a few days later. The two ronin stood on a hill with their horses and took a last look at Miyako. Matsuzo patted the neck of his horse and sighed as he gazed at the outlines of the ancient capital city, blurred by the early morning mist. “To think that we were hiding in Kagemasa's house so close to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and I didn't even catch a glimpse of it!”
“Kagemasa thinks that the Golden Pavilion is gaudy,” said Zenta. “He personally prefers the Silver Pavilion.”
“I didn't see the Silver Pavilion either,” growled Matsuzo. “In fact we hardly saw any of the famous sights of Miyako.”
“At least you can boast that you had an exceptionally fine view of the Gion Festival,” said Zenta. He got on his horse, still moving stiffly, but he seemed well able to ride.
Matsuzo mounted also. “Well, we can always hope that something might happen to Nobunaga. Then we can come back and see our friends again.”
“It's more likely that Nobunaga will soon control the whole country,” said Zenta dryly. “In that case no place will be safer than another, and we may as well return to Miyako.”
Just before he turned away, Zenta looked once more at Mt. Hiei, a ghostly outline in the far distance, like a brush stroke. “Have we really done any good at all?” he murmured. “As soon as Nobunaga feels strong enough to disregard the opinions of the other warlords, he will make plans again to attack Mt. Hiei. Perhaps all our efforts were wasted.”
“We did what we felt was right,” Matsuzo said quietly.
“And Pedro, too,” said Zenta. “He risked his own safety, even when the Mt. Hiei monks were his enemies.”
As their horses slowly picked their way along the narrow mountain path, Matsuzo said, “It's funny, but after a while I forgot about Pedro's long nose and the strange color of his skin.”
“His appearance wasn't important,” said Zenta. “All that mattered was that he was a man of honor and courage.”
In 1571 Nobunaga finally carried out his plan to attack Mt. Hiei. After defeating the militant monks, he began a systematic slaughter which spared no one, not even the men, women, and children of the nearby village of Sakamoto. Then he burned the huge monastery to the ground. The present monastery on Mt. Hiei is only a fraction of its former size.
Before Nobunaga could finish his task of unifying Japan, he was assassinated by a treacherous lieutenant, thus dying as violently as he lived. The task of unification was completed by his general Hideyoshi.
The Christian missionaries in Japan prospered for a time and made thousands of converts, many of them feudal lords and samurai. Later, however, Hideyoshi suspected that the missionaries were being used as a cover for an intended military conquest of Japan. Missionary work was banned and the Christians relentlessly persecuted. This policy continued after Hideyoshi, until the last of the Europeans were expelled in the middle of the seventeenth century. Altogether the Portuguese presence in Japan lasted less than one hundred years.
Fearful of foreign domination, Japan closed its doors completely to the outside world, except for the port city of Nagasaki. There the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to have a trading post. This isolation of Japan lasted until 1858, when the American Commodore Perry arrived with his iron ships.
With the opening of the country to the outside world, the feudal age ended. The emperor and the capital moved to Tokyo, and the ancient capital city of Miyako changed its name to Kyoto.
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