Shike – Day 164 of 306

Slowly, the Jewel reappeared in his gaze. After a time he put it away and stood up, sighing. His foreboding about this expedition was confirmed.

He started down the hill. Today he would teach his students how to kill with any one of thirty-four common objects to be found in any household.

Chapter Two

Taniko and Lord Hidehira’s wife had worked together preparing the dinner, and together they served it to Yukio, Jebu and Hidehira. When not serving, Taniko knelt in a corner beside Hidehira’s wife with her eyes downcast and pretended not to hear the conversation. At first, she told Jebu, she resented being expected to play the role of a woman of the Sacred Islands, submissive and hidden. But now it relaxed her. After the uncertainties of life in China and Mongolia, it was pleasant to know exactly what to do in every situation.

The hall they were in was built of roughhewn logs. The pillars that supported the roof were barbarously carved and painted. Hidehira liked to imagine that his palace rivalled anything in Heian Kyo, but to his visitors’ eyes, it was so different there was really no comparison.

“I never forgot her,” Yukio was telling Lord Hidehira and Jebu. “When I came back here after so many years I was amazed to discover that she was still unmarried. That was my fault, though. Her father had many daughters and it was difficult to find a husband for Mirusu after she had given birth to a wandering stranger’s child.”

“Shame, shame,” said old Hidehira, chuckling and wagging a finger at Yukio. The top of his head was bald. The long white hair that grew from the sides of his head flowed together with his luxuriant white beard and moustache, all of which spread over his chest like a great river fed by its tributaries. He was a dainty eater and kept his beard scrupulously clean. He was eighty-nine years of age.

He was the tenth-generation chieftain of a clan known as the Northern Fujiwara, who had settled here in the land of Oshu hundreds of years earlier, after losing out in a power struggle with the Fujiwara branch that dominated in the capital. Like the Muratomo and the Takashi, the Northern Fujiwara had become landowning samurai. They had been allies of the Muratomo for generations. They took part with them in joint expeditions against the barbarian hairy Ainu who had once held these northern reaches. Fujiwara Hidehira had sheltered Yukio once before, years ago, and it was while staying at Hidehira’s stronghold that Yukio got the idea to go to China.

“Ah,” said Jebu. “You are marrying the girl whose father owns Sun Tzu’s Art of Warfare.”

“Exactly,” said Yukio. He recounted the story to Hidehira, of nights divided between reading the classic on warfare and enjoying the delights of the lovely Mirusu.

“Ah, the energy of the young.” Hidehira laughed as he levered a prawn to his mouth with chopsticks. “Coupling half the night and studying till dawn.”

“You sought the girl out again as soon as you got back here?” said Jebu. “I thought you were only interested in reading the books.”

“Hardly,” said Yukio. “She was an exquisite creature, pale and delicate as moonlight. She has not changed that much since we parted.”

“Her father was a Takashi supporter,” said Jebu. “Didn’t he object?”

“It seems he lost a bit of land in Omi province to Takashi double-dealing. Now he hates them passionately. Also, he feels a son-in-law with twelve thousand troops behind him may have a promising future.”

“Did you learn much from the Chinese book on warfare?” Hidehira asked him.

Yukio smiled and nodded. Taniko thought, it’s too bad his teeth stick out every time he grins, and he grins so often. If it weren’t for those protruding teeth and bulging eyes he’d be a handsome man. Still, his new bride was getting a marvellous man. Almost as marvellous as Jebu.

“I learned that deception is the key to victory in war,” said Yukio. “A principle that was confirmed for me while riding with the Mongols.”

Hidehira waved a hand in dismissal. “That is not the samurai way of fighting.”

“I know,” Yukio said solemnly. “I expect to beat any samurai army sent against me.”

“I do not like your Mongols,” said Hidehira, looking sourly down at the small table on which his food was arranged. It was a feeling, Taniko thought, which would be shared by many people of the Sunrise Land, of high and low station. Yet, Hidehira had so far allowed the Mongols to camp outside his provincial capital, Hiraizumi, had sold them provisions and was adding a detachment of his own considerable army to Yukio’s.

“Our people don’t like any foreigners,” Yukio said with a laugh. “But we had better learn from them. Their way of making war has won them territories so vast, Lord Hidehira, that you might not believe so much land exists on the earth. To travel from one end of the territory ruled by Kublai Khan to the other takes most travellers a year. Of course, he has post riders who can do it in twenty days.”

“Kublai Khan,” said Hidehira. “An absurd name. What are post riders?”

Yukio looked at Jebu, raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Couriers. They ride the fastest horses. All travellers must clear the road for them. They ride from one post to the next, where they change mounts. They continue day and night. Being able to send and receive messages so quickly enables the Great Khan to hold his empire together.”

“I’m glad we have no such thing here,” said Hidehira. “The Northern Fujiwara would never have been able to enjoy as much independence as we do if messages could travel with such lightning-like speed.”

“Your isolation is good for you but a problem for me,” said Yukio. “I need so much more information before my army can start to move.”

“All you need to know is that everyone hates Sogamori,” said Hidehira. “He issues whatever orders he pleases. Neither laws nor officials can oppose him. Even my cousin, the proud Fujiwara of Heian Hyo, must kiss the soles of his sandals. For a year now, Sogamori’s grandson, Antoku, has reigned as Emperor.”

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