This lifetime occurred some time ago, in a land far to the east of recorded lands.
The spring blossoms always stirred in Po Ch’u that gentle sensation of nostalgia, oft discussed in the classic literature of I’se. The words of Kakino, the most venerable of ancient poets, described the death-dance of these ephemeral petals wonderfully, “Scattered pink petals cover my shoes / evermore I wish for their buds.” Singlehandedly, mused Po Ch’u, this great poet had taken these symbols of transience and turned them into a dualistic metaphor for both change and that sentimental objection to it that more clinical minds had termed ‘nostalgia.’ Poets of Kakino’s day and ever since had reused this symbol without thought, displacing that old image cherished by Ar’ii and that archaic school of poets, that of “the ever-returning sea.” In his idealistic youth, Po Ch’u had hoped of reviving this old symbolism in his foray into poetry, but soon realised that the truly mortal blossom was more akin to a man’s nostalgia than the eternal sea. Soon thereafter, he had opted out of poetry and quickly found himself in the employ of a local lord as a guardsman.
Owing to his imposing physique and considerable aptitude wielding two-handed blades, Po Ch’u was able to make light work of the hierarchy inside the lord’s guards and, on the eve of his child’s birth – he had married a servant girl some years prior – was appointed the head of the guards. As a bitter reminder of the oppositional nature of this floating world, the joy of a promotion and fatherhood was soon counterbalanced by grief: just days after giving birth, his wife contracted a malady. A few days later, she was scattered across Lake Kireji, as is tradition. Another of Kakino’s verses sprung to mind, “Though I mourn my loved one today / I too must vanish into the clouds.”
Thus far it would not seem that Po Ch’u is a man worthy of much attention. Indeed, his entire reputation rests upon but a single act, which occurred some years after his wife’s natal death. The old lord had died, replaced by a fiery son who, in due course, served as a the instigator of a brutal civil war. It became known as the Si’ugenu War. Its most prominent battle was the Battle of Ryokan, which occurred on a sweltering summer’s day.
Ryokan was a small village surrounded by open pasture of strategic importance, if only because of its rich harvests and location on the Tokido road which linked the Imperial and dissident capitals. Po Ch’u, convinced of the crimes of the Emperor, was given the rank of general by his new lord upon the outbreak of the war. Arriving in Ryokan under orders from his liege, Po Ch’u, aware that the Emperor’s army was to intercept him here, was expected to set up a fortification. Such flat land was not much given to fortifications, especially not any able to withstand the Emperor’s troops for the five or so days until reinforcements arrived.
“Curses, he’s using us as bait,” moaned one captain over the lord’s tactics.
“Or worse,” muttered another, seemingly given to cryptic utterances.
“Quiet!” Po Ch’u instructed his men. He was trying fruitlessly to devise a strategy.
That evening, Po Ch’u sat out on the grass, drinking some bitter beverage from his gourd. Being still a poet at heart, his gaze was fixed on yet another of those great symbols, the moon, in search of some form of solace. It would be inappropriate here, given the gruesomeness of the inspiration given to him by the moon and his drink, to invoke Kakino, whose verses on the moon are light-heartedly drunken in nature, though there is little doubt that Po Ch’u did so that evening.
Next morning, the scout returned to the camp and, with an expression of absolute horror, informed the general of an approaching Imperial force “some 3,000 men in size, just 12 li away.” At once, Po Ch’u set about positioning his men: a quarter were assigned to the little copses on the flanks, a further quarter to various positions in the town itself, while half, headed by Po Ch’u himself, formed an east-facing line of defence outside the village boundaries. In front of this straight line were placed the objects of the stratagem: he ushered every last man, woman and child in the village out of their homes and in front of his line of soldiers, lining them up parallel, one soldier to one citizen, the latter facing the direction of the Imperial advance. To ensure they stayed put, a spear or other such weapon was held but a thumb’s length from a citizen’s neck by every soldier—the archers were entrusted to the hidden positions only as a last resort.
The lord’s men didn’t have to wait long for the Imperial army to arrive. Though his eyesight had long since begun its decline, Po Ch’u could still make out the horror on the enemy faces, many of them wrought with pain. Po Ch’u stood forward, and, speaking more deeply than usual, issued a clear command to the Imperial troops.
“Retreat, or be held accountable for a most terrible occurrence.”
Three days later the lord arrived and found to his surprise that Po Ch’u had managed to hold his position and, upon inquiring as to how this was done, was at once impressed and repulsed by this ruthlessness. Unfortunately for Po Ch’u, his lord was soon to fall ill and die, prompting factional disunity among the dissenters that led to their downfall. The Emperor consolidated his grip on power at the memorable Battle of Basu, in which Po Ch’u and other rebel leaders were comprehensively defeated on a spring day.
Po Ch’u, under order to kill himself, had been granted the time to compose a death poem. He forwent sleep to stare intently at that friend of his, the moon, for hours on end. Days were spent musing over his volumes of Kakino and reminiscing at the sight of the swirling blossoms. On the morning of the third day, a messenger informed him that his suicide would be overseen by the Emperor himself at sunset. That day, the ruthless general and inventor of the human shield regressed to his poetic youth and, enhanced in ability by the vividness of his impending death, realised that which he’d set out do in his final verse, “So long a prisoner of this world / soon to return with the receding tide.” It is said that the Emperor, this verse in hand, wept as he watched Po Ch’u slump lifelessly into the petals that layered the floor. Inside Po Ch’u’s cell, he found rare volumes of Kakino’s verses, torn in a frenzy earlier that day. Only a slim scroll of Ar’ii’s works remained intact.
At the Imperial Crematorium, the Emperor left without taking the sword left by Po Ch’u. Guessing its value, the greedy cremator Ak Haranu took it home.
“I work hard, I deserve something,” he told himself as he stroked the aged blade, enthralled by its metallic lustre. Though he intended to sell it, Ak Haranu has never let go of the sword, for reasons unbeknownst even to himself. The Emperor, meanwhile, was to remain in awe of Po Ch’u’s death poem for some time; though his attempts to alter historical records were unsuccessful, he talked the Poetry Office into including it in their new anthology. Many years later, on the eve of his own death, the Emperor is said to have clutched the anthology to his breast as he composed his own death poem.