Sagarifuji: The emblem of the Fujiwara clan
When Hiro was fifteen, Umakai assigned him his first important job. He was to lead the census of the fields and gather information from the orderlies about the healthy growth of the crops. He received several bags of coins to give as tokens for the men’s good work. Clerks accompanied him, and the group was protected by eight guards armed to the teeth. The people in the streets bowed and called him ‘Lord Fujiwara.’ Once again, slipping into his father’s sandals felt good.
Even with the guards in tow, the roads were still dangerous, so Hiro was allowed to carry his bow and arrows for protection. In the past year, he had cultivated a good aim while hunting the wild ducks nesting around the sanctuary. He was not yet permitted to have a knife or sword. It would be two more years before he could take Little Kusanagi from his father’s armory wall and hang it at his hip. Nevertheless, the bow and arrows gave him strength. At last he carried a weapon.
The russet Kiso that he rode had been a present from his uncles. It was a warrior’s horse, unlike the good-natured Taishū he’d received the previous year.
When they passed a swampy field where young women were boiling starworts, a group of them was brave enough to chase Hiro and offer a bouquet of kakitsubata. They giggled and fluttered their dark eyelashes as he blushed and accepted the flowers. The guards laughed at his shyness.
They were making good progress on the census. Hiro had studied arithmetic at the Academy, and that made it easier to follow the clerks and their rapid scribbling. Everything seemed to be in order. All rice paddies had been planted according to plan. The millet fields were being tilled to let the earth breathe until the next crop. An orderly recommended exchanging part of the melon crop with radishes because he’d heard rumors the demand would increase that year, and Hiro made his first important decision by taking the advice.
On his way back to Heijo-kyo, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu felt content. He was doing what he’d been born to do. His favorite part was giving the coin bags to the orderlies and basking in their happiness.
As Hiro and his group reached the last field, he pulled back his horse’s reins and took in a heartbreaking sight. A man knelt on the ground, his palms in the dirt and forehead lowered onto his hands.
“Please, sir. I’m strong. I can work.”
The orderly looked disgusted, and his horse was nervously tossing its head. “You are barely fit to lift a bucket of water. Be gone, you wretch.”
The man wasn’t deterred by the harsh words, and he continued to beg. He was skin and bones, and his hitatare was threadbare. Hiro could count his ribs through the gaps in the cloth.
“I can do anything, sir. Anything you need. And my boy can carry logs. You don’t need to pay us or give us shelter. We’ll work for food.” The man attempted to place his hand on the orderly’s foot to bow and kiss it.
Hiro stared at the orderly’s dark blue robe with the Sagarifuji shining brightly, sewn on with silver thread. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the emblem as his employee pulled out a whip and brought it down to lash the man on the ground. Hiro heard a cry, and a young boy jumped to cover the begging man with his own body. The next lash hit the boy instead, ripping his hitatare down the back.
Hiro’s world shook with a thousand earthquakes, and his heart leaped into his throat. The hitatare was dirty, and its sleeves now only reached the boy’s elbows, but Hiro would recognize his old night robe anywhere. He’d once gifted it to a boy he’d caught stealing rice.
“Stop!” Hiro called, as the orderly raised his hand to strike again. The man turned toward him with the haughtiness of a royal emissary delayed by peasants on his way to do the Emperor’s bidding. His eyes widened and he paled when he saw Hirotsugu. He dropped the whip and slid from his horse, prostrating himself in front of Fujiwara no Umakai’s firstborn son.
“My lord, you arrived early,” the man gasped.
Hiro would have slapped him over the head if that hadn’t been beneath him. He dismounted and walked over to the boy who was cradling his hurt shoulder. The lash had left an angry red line on his back. Something broke inside Hiro at the sight, and he was glad he didn’t have a sword with him that day.
“It’s all right,” he said, helping the boy to his feet. “He will not hurt you anymore.”
Ryū shivered and looked up at him. His eyes, bordering on tears, grew large as he recognized Hiro. “My lord,” he whispered. “Is this a dream?”
Six years had passed, but despite the hardships that he’d lived through, time had been good to Ryū. He was taller, his features had sharpened, and his face had turned from baby fat round to heart-shaped. He was dirty and smelly and probably had lice, but Hiro was happy to see him. He’d thought about him every winter, when the blizzard was too strong to brave the streets, or when the cold formed icicles around the lattice work of his windows.
“It’s me,” Hiro said quietly, careful not to be overheard by the others. “Is this your father?”
“Yes,” Ryū said. “Whom you saved many years ago.” He took Hiro’s hand and squeezed, as if trying to confirm he was real.
Hiro was overcome by a need to embrace him that was so powerful it made him dizzy, but many eyes were on him. The guards and clerks had caught up and were now surrounding them.
He let the boy go and turned to the orderly. “Why aren’t you hiring this man? He appears fit for work.”
“But, my lord, I can’t.”
“Why not?” Hiro asked, trying to infuse his tone with as much authority as possible.
“Because it’s the law. I can only allow the men sent by Kensei the Bailiff to work the fields, no others.”
Hiro turned to the clerks. “Who made this stupid law?”
“Your father, Young Fujiwara,” one of them said, unimpressed by Hiro’s behavior. That made Hiro bite back his outrage. A mask fell over his features. He stormed toward his horse and retrieved the coin bag designated as a gift for the orderly, knowing he would pay for this later.
“Here. It is enough to live for a year.”
“My lord,” Ryū’s father said. “We don’t want charity. Just good, honest work.” His voice was tired, like an elder on the brink of death.
“Well, old man,” Hiro said, angered by his own helplessness, “today I can only give you charity.”
He seethed as he climbed back on his horse. Before kicking the beast into a gallop, he cast one last glimpse at Ryū. The front of his long hair had bangs that fell in his eyes, but instead of covering them, it made them shine brighter.
Ryū held the bag as if it had snakes hissing inside. When he looked back, there was pain in his beautiful brown eyes, and Hiro didn’t know if it had always been there or if he’d just caused it. His horse snorted, muscles trembling as it felt his tension.
“Hiya!” he said, and his mount left dust in his wake. The guards and clerks hurried to follow him.
They weren’t able to successfully complete the census, and Umakai was not pleased. Somebody had told him what happened. Hiro found himself summoned to Umakai’s quarters and sitting on a cushion in front of him, receiving a lecture about proper conduct.
“Whatever the hand finds to do, do it with all your heart and do not leave anything unfinished. Today, your emotions got to you, and you failed to finalize the census. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Hiro’s lower lip trembled as he spoke. “I am sorry, Father.”
“You were upset with the orderly, and you stopped him from punishing a beggar who had interfered with his work. You took the coins intended to reward a man’s good work for our family, and you gave them to someone you’d never seen before. Why?”
Hiro curled his hands into fists in his lap. “They told us in the Academy that a Yamato man acts rightly because he consults his own heart. My heart did not agree with the orderly’s choice to mistreat the poor. He wasn’t worthy of your gift.”
Umakai regarded his son in silence. Hiro dared to raise his eyes, and the displeasure on his father’s face hit him like an arrow through the chest. He looked back down at the floor, blinking back tears.
“There’s something you do not yet understand, my young sheltered son,” Umakai said. His father’s tone was a cold blade, unsheathed and ready to slaughter. “It’s the poor that keep you fed. Those poor ensure you’re clothed and with a roof above your head. Without the poor living in fear of having nothing, without them fearing hunger, disease, or war, there will be no food, no clothes, and no money for the powder-faced, silken-clad lords and ladies of the aristocracy. That fear must be nurtured with the lash, so the poor man believes he’d rather be whipped all his life than be hungry, cold, or sick for a week. And those who hold the lash need to be rewarded, so they forget that they are human as well, and no better than the beggar.”Umakai loomed above his kneeling son. “It’s time for you to meet Kensei the Bailiff. To see how the Fujiwara—and all the aristocracy—treat the poor. Be prepared. We’ll leave early in the morning.”