Shike – Day 177 of 306

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.

He had cheated a bit and written his next-morning letter and poem the previous afternoon. He could not have managed to stay all night long with the princess, then to arm himself and leave for Nara in the morning, and also find time to compose a decent letter and a suitable poem.

He had told her he was going to pursue the rebel prince who was fleeing to Nara. Her parting words echoed in his mind. “You are as tall and beautiful as a heron. Fly back to me safely and quickly.”

He began to see the bodies before they reached the Uji, where, he had been told, the main battle had taken place. Most of the dead had been stripped of their armour, and they lay like heaps of stone or bundles of cloth on the side of the road. Atsue’s horse shied, and he had trouble controlling it. This annoyed him, because Grandfather had sent an escort of twelve veteran samurai with him, and he didn’t want to look like a poor horseman before these experienced warriors. The samurai didn’t seem to notice the bodies. The worst sights, Atsue thought, were the parts of bodies, the men who had been cut in two, the severed limbs. Most of the corpses lacked heads. Each samurai received honours and pay according to the number of heads he could produce after a battle.

From wounded Takashi samurai passing on their way back to the capital, Atsue learned, to his disappointment, that there was no more fighting. The battle had been fought late the night before and finished in the morning. Vastly outnumbering Prince Mochihito’s supporters, the Takashi fell upon them and overwhelmed them at sunset. During the night many of the rebels disappeared into the countryside. Most of their leaders had cut open their bellies early this morning, choosing a temple called Phoenix Hall on the southern bank of the Uji as the site of their self-immolation. The former Regent, Fukiwara no Motofusa, had been captured. As for Prince Mochihito, he had fled to a Shinto shrine further down the road to Nara, where the Takashi caught up with him and finished him off with a volley of arrows.

The Uji was a broad, fast-flowing grey-green river running through wooded hills. Simple Shinto shrines and elaborately painted Buddhist temples lined its banks on both sides. Atsue and his escort rode over the bridge with a clatter of hooves on planks. Atsue turned downstream in the direction of the Takashi camp.

The Takashi had set up camp before Phoenix Hall. Samurai sat on the ground beside their tethered horses, repairing their armour and polishing their swords. Many of them recognized Atsue and called respectful greetings to him. He had always been popular with the samurai.

The Phoenix Hall was an elaborate building in the Chinese manner with two wings and uncurling roof corners. It had once been the country villa of a nobleman, who had willed it to religion. Now Red Dragon banners fluttered over it. Atsue’s uncles and the other Takashi officers sat at their ease in the shade on the front steps of the hall.

In the dusty courtyard before the temple stood a lone man, tied to a pole, his arms bound behind him with ropes. He was small and slender and wore a dark, dusty robe. His head was bowed, his shoulders bent.

Atsue walked around the man to get a better look at him. He recognized him at once, even though his face was unpowdered and he was shabbily dressed. It was the former Regent, Fujiwara no Motofusa. The small black eyes looked back calmly and incuriously at Atsue. Doubtless many men had gone up to Motofusa to stare at him today.

Atsue had seen Motofusa in public many times after the day of the carriage fight. Eventually, though, as the Takashi hold on the government grew stronger, Motofusa had been pushed out of the Regency and replaced by a younger relative more amenable to Sogamori’s influence.

Now that he and Motofusa were staring at each other, it would be rude not to speak to him. Atsue bowed deeply.

“My respects to you, Lord Fujiwara no Motofusa. I am sorry to see you in this uncomfortable position.”

Motofusa smiled at him, showing blackened teeth. “Your manners are exquisite, like those of all the younger Takashi.” The implication that fine manners were not enough was clear. It stung Atsue and made him want to remind Motofusa of their encounter years before.

“I’m sure you don’t remember me, my lord. I am Takashi no Atsue, son of Takashi no Kiyosi, grandson of Takashi no Sogamori. In the Year of the Horse your carriage had an unfortunate meeting with one in which I and my mother were riding.” Atsue realized that he had not thought of his mother in years. The helpless hunger for her, when it did arise, was so painful that he quickly pushed the thought of her from his mind. Lately he had been telling himself that he really didn’t miss her, but her face kept appearing in his dreams.

“Ah, yes,” said Motofusa. “You must be the son of Kiyosi and that little woman from the provinces who was married to Prince Sasaki no Horigawa. I warned Horigawa that he was making a mistake, marrying beneath him. Well, forgive me for saying that. I have no wish to hurt your feelings, young man. The occasion you spoke of caused me considerable discomfort thereafter, as you may also recall.”

“After all, you humiliated our family, my lord,” said Atsue.

“That’s the difference between us, young man. Your family can be humiliated. I, on the other hand, can suffer endless indignity, I can even be put to death, and remain a Fujiwara.”

Atsue swallowed hard. “Are they going to kill you?”

“Don’t look so shocked, young Lord Atsue. You are samurai. Samurai are expected to revel in the sight of blood. Your generation of Takashi has not had the opportunity to see much blood spilled before now. Instead you powder your faces and blacken your teeth, you paint, you write poetry in beautiful characters, you dance and you play musical instruments. The power of the Takashi is not based on these attainments, however, but on military prowess. You younger ones are somewhat lacking in experience of bloodshed. Don’t worry, though.” His eyes hardened. “You’re going to see a great deal of blood spilled before this war is over. Oceans of it. I only regret that when it is done, the world I knew and loved will be even more distant than it is now.” He began to speak in Chinese.

But when I look back and speak of things that were,
With glowering brows I find I loathe my life.
The streams and hills now shelter thieves and bandits;
The fields are now abandoned to brambles and thorns.

He paused, looking sadly at Phoenix Hall. Atsue couldn’t resist providing the final two lines of Liu Yin’s poem:

Our heritage is a burden of moral obligations,
But we lack a ruler who grieves at committing murder.

Motofusa smiled with pleasure. “Thank you. Your literary learning is extensive. I did not wish to finish the poem myself because you might think it an offensive reference to your grandfather.”

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