“Stupid,” Takatora said and threw the handscroll down on the wooden floor. “If this is what they say after twenty years, what will they say in one hundred?”
“I didn’t know you cared about his reputation,” Masamune raised his eyebrow, sipping wine.
Takatora looked up at the sky. His eyes were starting to go bad and the clouds looked like smudges of white on blue. He closed his eyes.
“We were friends once,” Takatora muttered. “Before Nobunaga… before Lord Hidenaga died… no… we’ve never stopped…”
Masamune snorted. “That’s a change.”
“What is?” Takatora looked back at Masamune.
“Every year you talk about Ōtani, are you finally going to talk about Ishida?”
“What do you mean by ‘finally’?”
“There were rumours, you know,” Masamune shrugged, finishing his cup and pouring himself some more. “And every year you’re stubbornly refusing to talk about anything involving Ishida. That one time when Kanetsugu…” Masamune abruptly stopped, looking at his cup. Then he sighed. “For how long are we going to be allowed to still drink like this? Soon it’ll be one of us.”
“Don’t make me dead yet, Masamune,” Takatora said lightly, but deep in his chest, he felt the burden of all those past years. Of everyone that had left him. His lords, his friends, his family. The time healed the scars, but during the time of anniversaries, the memories and feelings would come back.
Takatora gripped his knee, to stop his hand from shaking. Masamune’s words opened the dam and he felt overwhelmed by memories he rarely allowed himself to remember. He exhaled.
“Do you know what were the last words I said to him?” Takatora asked, pouring some more wine for himself. Lately, he only reserved drinking for official business and his meetings with Masamune. “‘How did you see my forces? Is there anything I could improve?’”
Masamune choked on his drink.
Takatora smiled wryly. “He criticized my gun unit. Telling me that I need to employ commanders with higher standing, not foot soldiers. I thanked him and left. A few days later he was executed.”
Masamune was watching him with wide eyes, coughing.
“He… I don’t think he would want to hear…” Takatora ran his fingers through his hair and sipped some of his wine. He felt the warmth spreading through his body. “Takayoshi wanted to talk with him… thank him for everything, but Mitsunari didn’t allow it. There was nothing to be said anymore, he said.”
Masamune tilted his head. “Do you regret it?”
“No!” Takatora replied loudly. “I chose my path, he chose his. Both of them did and died. Both scattered like petals… If anything, I hate they died a pointless death. Like many others, who refused to follow the natural flow of time.” Takatora finished his cup and stood up. “I’ll be back,” he said and started to walk away from the garden, away from Masamune’s questions. He drank too much today and he couldn’t think straight. He was afraid that he would say something he would regret for the rest of his life.
When he entered the hall leading to his personal rooms, he stopped and leaned against the wooden pillar, running a hand down his face. The handscroll depicting the battle of Sekigahara Masamune gave him to read, no matter how wrong in its recounting of events, made him relive everything again. And more than that it made him remember the early times. When lord Hidenaga was still alive. When Mitsunari didn’t care about Tokugawa Ieyasu. When Mitsunari didn’t close off his heart. When everything was still different.
Mitsunari stood alone in the yard, looking up at the red leaves. His copper hair danced in the wind. It grew longer since the last time Takatora had seen him. He watched him from afar for a while, before he closed the distance and stopped next to him, glancing at his profile. Mitsunari slowly turned his face, a small, almost unnoticeable smile on his lips. Takatora didn’t remember seeing him this relaxed before.
“…beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Aaah, beautiful,” Takatora repeated without thinking, his eyes not leaving Mitsunari’s face.
When Mitsunari’s eyes grew wide and he made a few steps back, lowering his head, Takatora knew that something wasn’t right. His own eyes widened as he realised what he had just said, but he didn’t apologize.
He exhaled and said in his usual calm tone: “It’s been a while.”
“Welcome back,” Mitsunari replied, his cheeks flushed. “I heard about your feats. Congratulations. Lord Hideyoshi was complaining again that you weren’t his direct vassal,” he added in a light tone.
Takatora snorted. “I don’t care what lord Hideyoshi wants, my only master is Lord Hidenaga.”
Mitsunari scowled at him.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Takatora said before Mitsunari could get out a single word. “You should tell him that giving out rewards and fiefs is a matter of course. It’s the heart of the people he needs to earn. He can’t buy everyone.”
Takatora frowned. “Isn’t it time for you to start using my name?”
“Are you trying to make me stop talking about Lord Hideyoshi?”
“That too.” Takatora smirked but then continued in a serious tone, “I mean it. It’s been three years since we’ve met again. Use my name.”
He could see the internal battle Mitsunari was having with himself.
“Mitsunari,” Takatora tried to prompt him, realising that he himself didn’t use Mitsunari’s name very often.
“Fine,” Mitsunari sighed. “Taka…tora.”
“I’m Hashiba Hidenaga. Lady Oichi said that you were a promising young man.” A small man with a high ponytail was looking up at him. “I want you to come and serve me.”
“I don’t like your brother; why do you think I’d like you?” Takatora asked coldly.
“There’s no guarantee that you’ll end up liking me,” Hidenaga replied with an amused glint in his eyes. “My brother has been working under Lord Nobunaga for many years. I only joined him recently and have just a handful of vassals. I’m not anyone powerful or important. I can’t offer you big rewards either. I’m only offering you a chance. You would start as a leader of my guards. If you find me lacking, you can go look elsewhere.”
Takatora narrowed his eyes. “How many people?”
“There’s only you for now,” Hidenaga laughed nervously. “I wanted to choose the leader first.”
Takatora couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The guard’s position was to protect the lord and his close associates. It was the leader’s job to accept the rest of the group. What Hidenaga was saying was that he was entrusting his life completely into Takatora’s hands.
“You would want someone as low class as me for the job?”
“I’ve been a farmer until recently. It makes no difference to me. Your abilities and experience is what matters.”
Takatora didn’t particularly wish to serve under the Hashiba banner, the same banner that caused his first lord’s clan to fall into ruins, but there was something about Hashiba Hidenaga that resonated within his heart. He wanted to lend him his power. He wanted to see where would the path this man was walking on lead to.
“I accept, Lord Hidenaga,” Takatora said, bowing deeply.
“Kiyomasa! You’re late!” Takatora shouted as he was fighting three Tokugawa’s men at once.
“Sorry!” Kiyomasa shouted back, waving his sickle and making his way to Takatora.
After Takatora could feel his presence behind himself, he started to focus only on what was in front of him. He could trust Kiyomasa to protect his back.
With Kiyomasa’s reinforcement, they managed to protect their position, but the result was less than favourable. Takatora had lost many men and most of those who had survived were injured. Takatora himself had a deep slash on his arm and his whole left side was soaked with blood. When Kiyomasa saw him, he immediately untied Takatora’s towel and tied it tightly around his arm to stop the blood from flowing out.
“Another scar to my collection, huh,” Takatora mumbled, feeling lightheaded. Kiyomasa’s face was becoming unfocused and Takatora closed his eyes. Before the darkness enveloped him, he could hear Kiyomasa complaining:
“Mitsunari’s going to have my head for this.”
“I’ve never thought that I’d end up fighting lady Oichi,” Takatora gritted his teeth. “What’s Lord… Hideyoshi thinking?”
“He offered her a choice,” Yoshitsugu replied. “It was her decision to stay. She decided to resist the flow once more.”
“How can you be so calm?”
“How is this different from any other battle?” Yoshitsugu asked. “Because you’re fighting someone you know?”
“You’re unexpectedly colder than I thought,” Takatora remarked, feeling his nails digging into his palms.
“Kiyomasa said it to you as well, didn’t he? Personal emotions and feelings should not be brought onto a battlefield,” Yoshitsugu said, watching Takatora with piercing eyes. “Or be responsible for important decisions.”
“Didn’t lady Oichi stay with Katsuie because of her feelings?” Takatora asked, turning around. “Let’s go, Yoshitsugu. I need to make achievements for Lord Hidenaga’s sake.”
Takatora entered his room. When he had left Masamune he only wanted some air, some time to be by himself, but now he made a decision. He opened the shōji , revealing a closet full of scrolls, books, and wooden boxes. With some difficulties he knelt down, his knees protesting, and took out one of the boxes from the lowest shelf.
Takatora took off the lid and his eyes fell on Yoshitsugu’s baton. He planned to put it into the grave with him, but in the end, he decided to keep it. It had been lying in the closet for the last twenty years. He ran his fingers along the length of it, Yoshitsugu’s calm, steady voice giving orders echoing in his mind.
Next to the baton laid a silver dagger he got from Lord Hidenaga. He took it out and put it closer to his eyes. It was still in a good condition. Perhaps he should give it to his son.
The last thing in the box was an iron fan he got from Mitsunari. He remembered how Mitsunari had presented the fans to him and Yoshitsugu, awkwardly thrusting the presents at them and leaving right after, not waiting for their thanks. Takatora had never learned why they were given to them and now he couldn’t even remember the time or circumstances surrounding it. Memory was such a trifling thing. Yoshitsugu was certainly keeping his in his residence, put on a wall where the beautiful light blue design was always on display. Takatora used to carry his around, only stopping when the frame broke.
He carefully unfolded it. The design was simple - his clan’s crest drawn with gold on a dark blue background. Nothing special, nothing personal, but for some reason he could still remember Mitsunari’s pleased look whenever he saw Takatora having it tucked behind the obi . He could remember Mitsunari taking it from him and proving to him that he was handy with any kind of fan. If he had had his usual war fan, blood would be spilled that day.
Takatora sighed and put the fan back to the box, putting the lid on again. He could not afford to reminiscent for the rest of the day. He had a guest to entertain. Like Masamune had said, none of them knew when it would be their turn.
He put the box back into the closet and stood up.
Perhaps next year, he would allow himself to remember everything.
Perhaps next year, he would tell Masamune the whole story.
Starting with the day when he had met a young boy called Sakichi on a shore of Lake Biwa…