Kensei Dayū: Kensei the Bailiff (Warning: sensitive content)
The bailiff had legendary status among the Fujiwara children. He was someone that Umakai and his brothers talked about often, but Hiro had never met him. What he knew about the bailiff was this: all of the hands working the fields, cutting wood, building houses, raising silkworms, and manufacturing anything that the Fujiwara clan needed, were provided by him.
Kensei’s big establishment was an hour’s ride south of Heijo-kyo. As planned, they left when the sky was still dark, and they were accompanied by a guard of six men.
They followed a stream parallel to a well-traveled road, spurring their horses onward until they reached a tall fence, impossible to climb, made of bamboo poles.
The bailiff’s shōen would always remain in Hiro’s memory as fodder for his nightmares. There was only one gate, and it had four guards standing on the outside and four on the inside. Mean men, foul-smelling, with bad teeth and disgusting sneers. When they recognized Lord Fujiwara, they bowed reverently and opened the gate. Hiro held his breath as he passed them. They smelled worse than animals.
Behind the bamboo fence, the courtyard emerged in all its macabre splendor. Hiro stiffened and halted his horse. He stared from one horror to another, his mind refusing to acknowledge this reality.
The bailiff’s residence was at the end of a long dirt trail that was flanked by meager houses. Some of the crude straw roofs were so old and unkempt they were caving in, threatening to fall at the next earthquake. The people’s dull eyes peeked at Hiro from between gaps in the walls, five or six adults in a room the size of his own. The deer near Fuhito’s sanctuary had better shelters than these shacks.
The sturdier wooden houses were workshops. Hiro counted two forges, a shop for making earthen pots, one for hemp spools, and another for weaving baskets and sandals from straw. Hiro saw old men with backs bent as they carried huge loads of wood. He watched small barefoot children lugging pitchers of water that dangled from poles on their shoulders. The most gruesome sight was the withering bodies of a man and woman dangling in the wind, hanging by their wrists from a tall walnut tree. They had been dead for a long time, and crows had eaten their faces.
Hiro grabbed Umakai’s reins. “Father, what is the meaning of this?” he snapped, gesturing toward the corpses.
Umakai barely spared them a glance. “It’s normal punishment for those who try to run away.”
Hiro held tightly. “Are they slaves, that they are unable to leave this place?”
Umakai extricated Hiro’s fingers from the leather. “Hirotsugu, the bailiff paid good money for these people when they were very young. Many times their own parents sold them because they couldn’t afford them.”
“What about the old people?” Hiro was aghast.
“They were once the children who were sold.”
“So that will be the future of the young ones I saw carrying pitchers heavier than themselves? They’ll never be free to leave this place? Are we slavers, Father? Are we barbarians?”
“My son.” His father looked at him as if he were the stupidest child in Yamato. “It is not in our best interest if they leave. It’s ideal if they think there’s no better life for them than this.” He gestured to dismiss Hiro’s objections. “Put your thoughts at ease. I told you, Hirotsugu. The Fujiwara wealth is built upon the peasants’ backs. If you like your silken clothes and your full belly, you’d better accept the truth about where these things come from.”
Hiro had never felt more disgusted with his legacy.
The bailiff welcomed the father and son as if they were Emperor Shōmu himself. He was a large bald man with a bushy white beard, beady eyes sunken on his fat face. He dropped to his knees to kiss the floor where their feet had touched it.
They were offered sweets. Hiro would have refused to eat that man’s food, but he couldn’t seem impolite toward him because it would anger Umakai. The owner of this horrible place was important to the Fujiwara clan, and Hirotsugu was expected to show him respect.
Umakai and Kensei shared pleasantries while they drank tea, and then the bailiff opened a long scroll to begin discussing business.
There was a war inside Hiro. He realized that sooner or later he would have to take over this side of the business and negotiate with the bailiff regarding the people that were needed for field work. But the idea sickened him.
It was a long time before business was concluded. At last, the spring and summer plans were settled, and Umakai stood to leave.
The hand of fate strikes unexpectedly in the unlikeliest of places. As much as Hiro hated that visit, he would be grateful for it until the end of his days as Fujiwara no Hirotsugu.
He moved to follow his father out of the hall, but Kensei got delayed by the arrival of a wiry, nervous-looking fellow. He bowed to the bailiff and whispered something in his ear. Kensei clapped his meaty hands and said, “This is perfect. Lord Fujiwara-sama, would you like to witness a barter for the future workforce?”
Umakai laughed and sat back down on his cushion. “This should prove interesting, especially for my son.” A pretty young woman filled his cup with sake, and he appraised her with heated eyes.
Hiro took a deep swig of tea, wishing he were old enough to drink sake. He wanted to fade in with the walls as a huddle of eight children was manhandled into the room. There were three girls and five boys, and the oldest of them had a tight rope around his neck.
Hiro’s cup shattered when he dropped it. He jumped to his feet in horror.
Somebody cleaned up his mess. His father said something. The bailiff said something. Hiro barely heard any of it. His mind blocked out everything except the rope around the neck of a boy in a white and blue hitatare that had grown too small for him.
From his kneeling position, Ryū glanced up and briefly met Hiro’s eyes. He’d been beaten severely. Fresh bruises covered his body and the hitatare was barely holding together. Only his face had been left unmarred.
“Where did you get these mutts?” Umakai joked. His cheeks were red, the sake going to his blood.
“These,” the handler said as he pushed two girls and one boy to their knees, “are spawns from the brothel nearby, Lord Fujiwara-sama. And these were orphans sold by their father’s family,” he said, pointing to the others.
“What about him?” Hiro asked about Ryū.
“Ah, this one was bought from some thieves.”
Hiro’s jaws clenched. “Are we making deals with thieves now?”
“Sit down, Hirotsugu.” His father’s voice was slow and lazy.
Kensei eyed Hiro, startled by his reaction. “Young Lord, there is great need for workforce. The Fujiwara lands are vast. Many die during winter.” He said it as if it were a normal occurrence that Hiro should have known.
“So you trade with thieves who kidnap children from their families?” Hiro turned to Umakai. “Is this worthy of us, Father? Aren’t we dishonoring our ancestors by dealing with stealing scum?”
“Everything is sellable, Young Lord,” the bailiff sputtered. “We buy what we need. Younger children are easier to turn into dutiful workers.”
“And what are you planning for the boy with the rope around his neck? He’s older than the rest.”
Hiro expected the bailiff would say melding iron or carrying water, but the leer on the man’s face made his stomach threaten to spill the food he’d eaten.
Hiro calmly descended from the dais where they’d been sitting, shoved his feet into his sandals, and strode toward Ryū. He yanked the rope from the handler and turned fiery eyes toward his father.
Kamatari’s poem flashed in Hiro’s mind.
Oh, Yasumiko I have won!
Mine is she whom all men,
They say, have sought in vain.
Yasumiko I have won!
“If everything is sellable, then I want to buy this boy.”
Ryū gasped quietly. Hiro looked down at his kneeling body, hands tied behind his back, head bowed. He took in Ryū’s onyx hair, white skin, and long eyelashes. At his trembling shoulders and the tear trails on his dusty cheeks. At that moment, Hiro knew he would do anything to protect him, even if he had to defy his father for the first time in his life.
Umakai’s laughter shook him out of his thoughts. “If you wanted a bed servant, Hirotsugu, you only had to ask.” He beckoned nonchalantly to the young servant and caressed her cheek as she refilled his cup. “He is yours. Do whatever you want with him.”
Hiro’s heart had grown more and more fearful as he waited for his father’s answer, but now it thrashed in his rib cage with renewed vigor. Ryū raised his head and they shared a look.
Hiro felt a shiver run through him. By questioning his father’s decision, he was breaching the rules of Filial Piety that had been drilled into him since birth. It could have been a deathly fall, but chance had saved him. The bailiff’s strong sake had been his ally in this.
Hiro could breathe once more.
Yasumiko, I have won.
I closed the veil and moved away from the throne, turning my back on the human world. As I passed the shining plum tree, I saw the fruit was now the size of a fist.
My feet made their way toward the precipice. The sky was dark, because the sun never shined here. The Land of Yomi fretted below. The demon’s hoots echoed as they roamed, forever feasting on the doomed.
I shut my eyes and turned my face upward, where clouds battled in an eternal struggle and lightning flashed in the sky. I missed the rain.
A chasm opened below me, revealing Yomi’s boiling yellow river and its stench of sulfur. There had been times I wished I could jump in and be done with it, but the golden-eyed immortals never knew solace, even in death.
No. They knew only curses.