Shike – Day 176 of 306

He raised his sake cup and stared deep into Taniko’s eyes. She felt herself blushing. “By the end of summer we will be in the capital and the Takashi will be as forgotten as last winter’s snow.”

Why, Taniko wondered, did he say that especially to me?

Chapter Seven

Takashi no Atsue went to the treasure box in his chambers, unlocked it and took out his father’s sword, Kogarasu. The sword was wrapped in heavy red silk. Atsue uncovered it, laid the two-edged blade on a blackwood stand in the tokonoma alcove, and burned incense to it on a small brazier. Kogarasu glistened like a lake under a full moon. Atsue had made it his personal duty to polish the sword every day. He prayed now to Kogarasu, asking that he be a worthy son of his father in the battles to come. In the sword, if anywhere, his father’s spirit must reside.

Then he went to see his grandfather. In the main audience hall of the Rokuhara, Sogamori, fat and shaven-headed, wearing his orange monk’s robe, was bawling orders at Atsue’s uncles, cousins and other high-ranking officers.

Prince Mochihito, the Emperor’s uncle, had proclaimed himself Emperor and immediately fled the city. A contingent of the Imperial Bodyguard had gone over to Mochihito and left the city with him. They were led by a Muratomo relative who had not been purged from the guards because he had avoided involvement in Domei’s insurrection. With Mochihito, also, was the former Regent, Fujiwara no Motofusa, an old enemy of the Takashi; it was Motofusa’s men who had caused the street brawl that had terrified Atsue as a boy.

Mochihito had echoed Muratomo no Yukio’s proclamation, calling for a general uprising against the Takashi, declaring that those who made war on Sogamori would not be rebels but loyal supporters of the rightful Emperor-himself. The pretender and his little band were headed, Sogamori believed, towards Nara, two days’ journey southeast of Heian Kyo. There they would probably seek refuge with Buddhist and Zinja warrior monks who supported their cause. They might try to hold out in Nara until Hideyori, who was raising an army in the east, could reach them.

Sogamori ordered thirty thousand samurai mobilized and sent after Mochihito and his followers. They were then to go on to Nara and attack the monasteries that favoured the Muratomo. From Nara, he commanded, they were to march north and meet Hideyori on the Tokaido. Hideyori defeated, they would return to Heian Kyo, gather reinforcements, and advance into the north-west provinces on the Hokurikudo Road to crush the other Muratomo brother, Yukio.

“They think to defeat us by attacking from three directions at once,” Sogamori growled. “But we will meet each threat in turn and defeat them one at a time.” He held up a finger and repeated. “One at a time, that is the secret of victory.” His sons and generals bowed.

“I have been too magnanimous,” Sogamori went on. “Having taken holy orders, I have tried to live according to the Buddha’s teaching. I let the Muratomo brothers live. I tolerated untrustworthy officers in the Imperial bodyguard. I left the Northern Fujiwara in peace.” He stood up suddenly and kicked over an ancient and beautiful four-panel screen. “When this war is over, every close relative of Muratomo no Domei will be sent into the great beyond, even infants at the breast. The Muratomo imbibe treason with their mothers’ milk. All officials and samurai who have come under suspicion of disloyalty, no matter how slight, will be executed. All orders of warrior monks will be suppressed. The Northern Fujiwara will be stripped of their lands. No longer will Takashi no Sogamori show compassion.” He stamped the screen to splinters.

Sogamori’s officers hurried out, their silks and satins rustling, the gold scabbards of their ceremonial swords twinkling. Sogamori turned to Atsue, and his broad face opened in a huge grin.

“Atsue-chan. What does my beautiful grandson want of me?” Atsue prostrated himself and swallowed nervously. “Honoured Grandfather, I want to fight the Muratomo.”

“Get up, child. Come sit with me.” Sogamori pointed to cushions beside him. There was a pained expression on his face. “Fighting is butchery, foul work. My ancestors were samurai, I am samurai, my sons are samurai. Now, though, I have one grandson on the Imperial throne, and I have always hoped that other grandsons of mine would be above going to war, would serve as scholars and men of state.”

“Honoured Grandfather, you’re afraid something will happen to me,” Atsue said, smiling at Sogamori. He knew that with that smile he could get his grandfather to agree to anything.

“Nonsense,” Sogamori chuckled. “What could possibly happen to you? You are the favoured of the kami.”

“The spirit of my father calls me to war, Grandfather,” Atsue said. “Ever since I came to live with you, you’ve been telling me over and over again how my father drove the Muratomo out of the Imperial Palace. I want to have a great battle against the Muratomo, too, as you did and my father did. Then I can settle down to serve my Imperial cousin at his Court.”

“The Takashi have always fought,” Sogamori sighed. “Have you arms and armour?”

“I have a beautiful suit of armour with blue lacings, Grandfather, which you gave me last year when we performed my manhood ceremony.” He touched his samurai topknot. “As for arms, I was hoping you would let me take Kogarasu.”

Sogamori sighed. “Take Kogarasu. Kill many Muratomo with it. I want to see all the Muratomo go into the next world before I do.”

“Yes, Grandfather.”

“One more thing, Atsue-chan. As you know, it is my wish that you marry the Imperial Princess Kazuko. You may go to the war tomorrow, but tonight you must pay your first-night visit to the princess’s bedchamber at the palace. I trust you are as eager to acquit yourself well there as you are to display prowess in battle.”

Atsue bowed. The blood raced through his body. To lie with a beautiful princess tonight and to go to war tomorrow—it was too perfect. The world was heaven.

Atsue arrived at the scene of battle late and tired. Princess Kazuko had kept him awake all night. No, to be fair, he had wanted to stay awake all night with her. Even when she had complained of soreness—she had been a virgin when he crept into her room at the beginning of the night—he could not restrain himself from coupling with her one last time.

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