Shike – Day 178 of 306

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.”

Atsue stiffened. “I know what my grandfather’s enemies say about him. I don’t consider him a ruler who approves of murder. My grandfather loves religion, nobility and learning. He hates the necessity of killing. He fights to preserve peace.”

Motofusa’s smile seemed to say that Atsue couldn’t actually believe that. “You must know something of the history of the realm, young man. For hundreds of years, from the founding of Heian Kyo until the disturbances of the last twenty-five years, there was peace in the realm. You samurai are not protectors of peace. You yourselves have destroyed it.”

Atsue felt a certain pleasure, knowing he could trap the former Regent. “Excuse me, sir, but wasn’t it rival members of your family, the Fujiwara, who first enlisted bands of samurai to settle differences between them by fighting?”

Motofusa bowed his head. “Humiliation is endless.”

Atsue felt sorry for him. He had no business winning arguments with a man of Motofusa’s age and dignity, especially when he had only a short time to live.

“Forgive me for disagreeing with you, my lord. Is there anything I can do for your comfort or peace of mind?”

Motofusa sighed. “Only I can pacify my mind, I’m afraid. But these ropes around my arms and hands are a dreadful nuisance. I’m perspiring, and I can’t even wipe my brow. On the honour of my ancestors, if you remove these ropes I won’t try to escape. Not that a man of my age could get away from thousands of samurai.”

“Allow me to ask permission to free your arms, my lord.”

Atsue strode across the dusty open space to the entrance of Phoenix Hall, where the Takashi leaders sat. They had all changed out of armour and into handsome red, green and blue robes. They were drinking sake and one of them was playing a lute.

Atsue’s Uncle Notaro, second son of Sogamori, sat in the centre of the group. He had inherited Sogamori’s tendency to stoutness, but without the muscular solidity that lay underneath it. Even here in the field his round face was carefully powdered and painted and his robes as thoughtfully chosen as if he were about to appear at Court.

“We were wondering if you’d ever catch up to us, Nephew. Wasn’t last night your first-night with the Princess Kazuko?” Notaro’s younger brother, the handsome Tadanori, laughed. Atsue felt his face grow hot.

“Honoured Uncle, I just want to ask a favour for the Regent Motofusa. The ropes are hurting him. May I untie him? He has sworn not to attempt escape.”

“Why was I keeping him alive? I forget,” Notaro said. “All the other prisoners were sent into the Void this morning. Well, no matter. If he’s uncomfortable, let’s kill him at once and end his suffering.”

One of Kiyosi’s older sons, a half-brother of Atsue, spoke up. “Honoured Uncle, perhaps he should be spared because he is a Fujiwara and a noncombatant?”

“That may have been in my mind earlier,” said Notaro, “but we’ve executed Fujiwara before this. As for his being a noncombatant, the Fujiwara never soil their hands with blood. Oh, no. They get others to do their killing for them. He helped start this rebellion. He deserves to die. Let him feel the edge of the sword. Immediately.” With a wave of his hand Notaro sent two officers to see to Motofusa’s execution.

Atsue pressed on. “May I untie him first, honoured Uncle? Whatever he has done, it is a shame for him to die trussed like a common criminal.”

Notaro smiled indulgently. “Go with those officers and unbind the prisoner, Atsue-san.”

The ropes on Motofusa’s arms were so tightly tied that Atsue quickly gave up on the knots. He drew Kogarasu, hearing the officers with him draw breaths of admiration at the sight of the famous sword. Atsue had been handling swords since he was four years of age, and Motofusa’s bonds fell away with a flicker of the two-edged blade.

“Thank you, young Lord Atsue,” said Motofusa with a black-toothed smile. “That is the closest a sword stroke has ever come to me—yet.”

One of the officers bowed. “I must ask you to prepare for death, my lord.”

Rubbing his arms and wrists, Motofusa frowned slightly. “Is it to be at once? There are favours I would like to ask, if the Takashi lords will be good enough to allow me.”

“We were ordered to help you into the Void immediately, my lord.”

“May I have writing materials? I would like to write a poem before I die.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, my lord.”

Atsue’s face grew hot with sudden anger. “This is barbarous. This is the former Regent, a man who was spokesman for the sacred person of the Emperor. We are taking his life. Let us give him the chance to make something that will live after him. Let paper and ink be brought.”

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