Shike – Day 166 of 306

Jebu was silent for a long time. At last she reached out and stroked his cheek. It felt cold, hard and smooth under her hand, like a jade mask. He is thinking that he owes his happiness to the death of a good man, and he is ashamed, she thought. It isn’t his fault, though.

At last he said, “You can’t go to the capital. You’d be in the thick of the fighting. What do you want to do?”

“I really have no alternative,” Taniko said. “If I can find a way to make the journey, I want to go back to the place where you met me, my family home in Kamakura.”

Chapter Three

Fujiwara Yerubutsu, Hidehira’s son and heir, arrived at Hiraizumi at the end of the Third Month, after the sun had dried up the mud of the spring thaw. There was even a summerlike dust cloud over the road along which Yerubutsu and thirty Fujiwara samurai had come, escorting a baggage train loaded with pottery and silk from the southern provinces.

A few hours after Yerubutsu’s arrival, Hidehira sent for Yukio, asking him to come to the great hall of the fortress. Accompanied by Jebu, Yukio walked through the gardens between the guesthouse and the donjon. There was a different feeling in the air. Samurai who had been friendly only the day before now greeted them gruffly or pretended not to see them at all. Many more men seemed to be in armour than on the previous day.

By the time they entered Hidehira’s great hall, Jebu’s senses were as alert as a hunted animal’s. Hidehira sat on the dais wearing a stiff black robe of state with upswept shoulders. A row of councillors and generals, similarly dressed, sat on his right and left. All wore their two samurai swords, the long and the short, the hilts thrusting out from under the robes. All were stone-faced except for the aged Hidehira, who wore an uncomfortable grin, as if trying to dispel the unpleasant atmosphere.

Hidehira began by introducing his eldest son to Yukio and Jebu. Yerubutsu was nearly seventy years of age, his topknot grey. His head was as perfectly round as an iron ball fired from a Chinese hua pao. His mouth was wide and at first glance, lipless; his eyes were slits.

Servants brought sake, and a round of polite questions and answers concerning Yerubutsu’s journey to the southern provinces and Yukio’s sojourn in China seemed to Jebu to take all morning.

At last Yerubutsu said, “It’s a good thing I was only in Maizuru, not in the capital, Lord Yukio. Otherwise, your proclamation could have caused me grave embarrassment. As it was, I barely had time to get out of Tango province with the goods I had acquired before a detachment of Takashi samurai arrived in Maizuru with a warrant for my arrest.”

“I regret that my activities caused you distress, Lord Yerubutsu,” said Yukio with a low bow. “My oversight was unpardonable.”

“Nonsense,” said Hidehira testily. “I knew Yerubutsu was in some danger, being so close to the capital when you issued your proclamation. I said to myself, if he can’t get himself out of trouble, he’s no son of mine.”

“I appreciate your confidence in me, Father,” said Yerubutsu coldly. “Still, you could have lost a son. Of course, now that Lord Yukio is here again, you may feel you can spare a son.”

“Lord Yukio’s father, Domei, was a brother to me,” said the old man sternly. “His son is my son. You have no right to resent that.”

Yukio quickly interrupted the bitterness between father and son. “Lord Yerubutsu, I’m most anxious to learn what impact my proclamation had in the provinces to the south.”

Yerubutsu gave Yukio a long, hostile look. “I had little time to learn its effect on others, since its effect on me was to force me to flee for my life. You can be sure, though, that now that the Takashi know you are in Oshu, a huge army will be on its way here before long.”

“Let them come,” said Hidehira fiercely, his white beard quivering.

“My father’s generosity and his loyalty to old friends are legendary in Oshu,” said Yerubutsu. “Because so many of our forefathers were comrades-in-arms, he extended his hospitality to you. Please forgive me, Lord Yukio.” Yerubutsu’s eyes glittered with hostility. “I fear you may have abused my father’s generosity. Unwittingly, I’m sure.”

A man with less self-control would have been provoked into drawing his sword. Yukio merely replied calmly, “If I thought that were true, Lord Yerubutsu, I would have to kill myself.” Having lived as long with Yukio as he had, Jebu understood that this was a threat. If Yukio were to cut his belly open because of Yerubutsu’s unjustified accusations, Yerubutsu would be disgraced.

“Certainly the matter does not warrant such extreme measures,” said Yerubutsu, shifting restlessly on his cushion. He’d love to hack Yukio’s head off and be done with it, thought Jebu. “I merely meant that by taking refuge with my father and issuing your proclamation of rebellion against Sogamori from here, you have placed us all in grave danger.”

“Sogamori has always been my enemy,” said Hidehira grumpily.

“I assure you, Lord Yerubutsu,” Yukio said, “the forces I have are more than ample to protect your domain from the Takashi.”

“We do not need your protection,” Yerubutsu snapped. The polite mask was slipping away. Rage was turning the ball-shaped head a deep orange colour. What was troubling Yerubutsu, anyway? It must be that he had plans of his own, and Yukio’s activities were interfering.

Yerubutsu said, “I presume by your forces you mean the swarm of barbarians camped on our land. I’m sorry to say it, Lord Yukio, but I’m shocked that the bearer of so illustrious a name as yours would lead foreigners in an invasion of our soil. Even Sogamori would not bring foreign troops to fight against his people.”

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