Shike – Day 182 of 306

“Would the Takashi follow us or had we guessed wrong? Would they try to bypass us instead? It wasn’t till almost nightfall that we heard taiko drums and flutes playing martial music and saw rank after rank of mounted samurai climbing over the foothills.

“Our two armies camped a short distance apart for the night. I thought it might be a good idea to retreat under cover of darkness, but my officers refused to listen.

“Then, in the middle of the night, there was a thunderous noise from behind us, the north end of the pass. Men jumped up in the darkness. Someone shouted, ‘It is the army of the Takashi coming to attack us! There are hundreds of thousands of them.’ They thought the Takashi had stolen around the mountains in the darkness and were attacking us from the rear. Our samurai, half-armed and half-dressed, ran forward, right into the Takashi camp. The Takashi slaughtered hundreds of them.

“By this time some of us realized that the noise that set off the panic was the whirring of the wings of a flock of water-fowl that had taken off in the middle of the night from a lake at the north end of the valley. We started to retreat up the pass, but the narrowness of the valley slowed us down. The supposedly effeminate Takashi fell upon us like a bear chewing up a deer. Less than half our men got out of the valley alive.

“I fled into the forest beyond the pass. It was every man for himself by now. I was alone. I lay with my face in the mud while enemy troops searched the bushes a few feet away.” He looked at Taniko. He could not say that he had been nearly mad with terror, but she could see it in his eyes.

“For five days the Takashi scoured those mountains and forests, killing every Muratomo samurai they found. Most of all, though, they were looking for me. Throwing off my armour, keeping only my sword, I fled them and hid from them.” His face brightened. “The worst moment of those five days was also the best. I know the kami are protecting me. I hid in a hollow tree. I could hear a band of the Takashi crashing through the underbrush. Then they were all around me. One of them approached the tree. I recognized him. He was a samurai who had served in the palace guard under my father. He looked into the hollow where I was hiding and right into my eyes. I clenched my fist around my sword. I was determined that I would kill him before he killed me, even though I could never escape his comrades. Then he smiled at me. He stepped back from the tree and struck it twice with the flat of his sword. Three doves that had been perched in the upper branches took flight. ‘No one over here,’ he called and walked away. Do you see? The gods must be watching over me.”

Taniko remembered how, long ago, Kiyosi had seen Moko hiding in a tree and spared his life. On that same day Kiyosi had beheaded the father of this man sitting before her.

She said, “Even in time of fiercest strife some men feel kindly impulses.”

“Kindly impulses?” Hideyori looked at her, surprised. “No, it was not the warrior who saved me. It was Hachiman. The dove is the messenger of Hachiman, and there were three doves in that tree. Hachiman clouded that man’s mind so he would not see me. It was Hachiman who smiled at me through the man’s face.” Hideyori walked over to the alcove. He knelt and prostrated himself before the statue.

“Are the Takashi coming here?” Taniko asked when he had seated himself with her again and drank some more sake.

“No. After five days they regrouped and withdrew down the Tokaido. Yukio must be threatening the capital.” Hideyori glowered at the Hachiman statue. “The thought of that upstart half-brother of mine in the capital before me makes me want to cut my belly open.”

He’s never been able to trust anyone, Taniko thought. He’s spent most of his life knowing that anyone around him might be willing to kill him and take his head to Sogamori. “Your brother Yukio has never spoken of you except in terms of the deepest respect, my lord,” said Taniko.

“How well do you know him?”

“I met him at the beginning of this year,” Taniko admitted. “I knew his mother at Court long ago.”

“I think I know Yukio better than you do, then,” Hideyori said with a hard smile. “I watched him grow up. He was a snivelling, ugly little snake whose mother turned my father’s head. She enticed him to forget his true family and give all his attention to her and her child. When he grew up he sneaked away from the Rokuhara and drifted about the country, living like a bandit. He never cared how his crimes endangered my life. Twice Sogamori ordered me executed because of things Yukio did. Only my ability to build alliances saved me. Can you wonder why I wanted to be in the capital before him? I wanted it so much, I made the same mistake our family has made for generations, the mistake that has led us into defeat after defeat.

“We are impetuous. We act rashly, prematurely. That’s what got my grandfather and my father killed. It caused the destruction of the Muratomo who followed Prince Mochihito. It nearly got me killed at Ishibashiyama, because I was in such a rush to get to the capital I didn’t wait until I had gathered a large army here at Kamakura before setting out to attack the Takashi. For that matter, I should not have gone into battle at all. A leader can’t plan intelligently in the heat of battle. You don’t see Sogamori riding at the head of his troops. He sends his sons and his generals to do his fighting for him. He sits like a spider at the centre of his web, taking advantage of his victims’ mistakes, growing fat on their bodies. Ishibashiyama is the last time I’ll ride to war at the head of troops. From now on I’ll stay here, making my plans, organizing my supporters, sending out my generals and troops, praying to Hachiman for victory. I believe I can fight this whole war from right here in Kamakura, better than I could if I were riding about the countryside like some ancient prince.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Taniko. “Especially since you have fine generals like Yukio to take the field for you.”

Hideyori eyed her coldly. “You keep trying to tell me that Yukio is a help, rather than a danger to me. If you weren’t so open about it, I’d suspect you of being a spy for him.”

Taniko smiled and shook her head. “I’m not a spy for anyone.”

“Of course not. You are staying here, are you not, with your family? You and I will be together throughout this war, then, Lady Taniko.” He smiled at her. There was no warmth in the smile, but there was desire. Taniko suddenly felt uneasy. She had put herself in a compromising position, coming here to his chambers, because she hadn’t expected him to be interested in her.

“I have never forgotten that day at Daidoji,” he said softly. “To save your husband’s life, you emerged from behind your screen of state, your pale face modestly turned aside, your ivory fan held up before you. I thought you the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Now there is no screen, and you are still the most beautiful woman I know.”

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