Shike – Day 190 of 306

Isoroku, forgive me, Atsue prayed. I failed you. Father, forgive me. I failed you, too.

They had all been so sure of themselves, so triumphant. This battle with Yukio was to be the last, the one that would secure the realm for the Takashi forever. It was now no longer a question of finishing off the last of the Muratomo. Now the question was: could anything be done to save the Takashi?

Chapter Eleven

A small, rectangular lamp illuminated Hideyori’s statue of Hachiman. The war god’s stern features flickered as if they were alive. Hideyori had placed before the statue a blue vase containing a cluster of handsome purple wisteria blossoms.

Bokuden and Ryuichi were both seated with Hideyori in his bare chamber when Taniko entered. The Muratomo chieftain sat like a stone, immobile, impenetrable. A scroll lay on the floor before him.

“You know my half-brother better than either your father or your uncle does. I want you to tell me what he will do next.”

Taniko bowed and knelt facing the three men. Her father looked frightened; Ryuichi, beneath his white powder, appeared bland and calm.

“That depends on what he has done lately, my lord,” said Taniko with a little smile.

“He has done what I could not do,” said Hideyori, almost choking on the words. “What my father and grandfather died trying to do. He has broken the Takashi.” Hideyori described the battle of Tonamiyama to her.

She felt her body grow cold as she grasped the enormity of it. Forty thousand Takashi, the largest army ever mustered in the Sacred Islands, had gone forth from the capital. Now over thirty thousand lay dead in Kurikara pass, slaughtered by a single tuman of Mongols and whatever samurai Yukio had recruited. Next, she thought, there will be Mongols in the capital. Arghun, the red giant who had tried so many times to kill Jebu, would smash his way into the Imperial Palace, perhaps even capture the sacred person of the Emperor. To the Mongols no monarch was sacred, not even their own.

We should be celebrating the defeat of the Takashi, she thought. Instead, we’re all frightened to death.

“He will take the capital,” said Hideyori. “Then what? Will he proclaim himself chancellor? Will he set himself up in Sogamori’s place?”

“I’m sure he won’t act without orders from you, my lord,” said Taniko quickly.

“What does he need me for?” said Hideyori, a note of self-pity in his voice. “How long will the Muratomo follow a chieftain who leads them to defeat, when they can turn to another who has won the most spectacular victory in the history of the Sunrise Land?”

It was not the Mongols that Hideyori feared, Taniko thought, but his brother. “He does need you,” she said firmly. “He needs you, because any legitimacy he has comes from you. He is not the son of Domei’s primary wife. He is not the chieftain of the Muratomo clan. The majority of his troops are foreign. Without a mandate from you he would be nothing more than a criminal.”

Ryuichi said, “See how much our little Taniko has learned about the way of statesmanship at the courts of China and Mongolia.”

“She has always pressed her opinions upon anyone who would listen,” Bokuden said sourly. “Even on those who do not care to listen.”

“The words of this woman are worth the views of the entire Great Council of State,” said Hideyori flatly, not even bothering to look at Bokuden. Ryuichi stared at Hideyori with surprised approval. Bokuden quickly changed his contemptuous expression to an obsequious smile, as if Hideyori’s words had enabled him to discover new virtues in his daughter.

Taniko could not help but be warmed and flattered. Hideyori was ambitious, distrustful and merciless, not at all like Jebu or Kiyosi, she reminded herself. Yet deep within him there was a vision she admired and a passion that stirred her. He needed someone to advise him. He sought such a person, without knowing it. No man could think entirely by himself. Hideyori was unable to trust any man, but he was willing to listen to her, a woman. Even though she came from Yukio he trusted her.

With Yukio’s forces at his disposal, Hideyori was on the verge of being the most powerful man in the land.

A chill of excitement rippled through her. Be careful, she warned herself. Now that you feel so close to what you’ve always wanted, don’t let yourself be swept away. She kept her eyes modestly lowered.

“These Mongols who follow Yukio,” Hideyori said, “Why do they fight for him?”

Taniko shrugged. “For the same reason Mongols always fight. For loot, for land, for power. Their leader, Arghun Baghadur, and his men are out of favour in their homeland and wish to fight for another master.”

Hideyori shook his head. “From what you have told me, the Mongols are a very practical people. I suspect they are here for a more serious purpose than adventure and plunder. They are the advance guard of an invasion.”

As much as she wanted to reassure Hideyori, Taniko knew she could only earn his confidence with the truth as she saw it. “That is possible, my lord. The Mongols do have an exaggerated notion of the wealth of our islands. The few times I talked with their Great Khan, I tried to convince him that China and the other nations west and south of it are far richer than we are. Naturally, he thought I was trying to mislead him to protect my people. Even so, I think that when his men report back to him that I told the truth, he may decide an invasion is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Is the Sunrise Land really so poor compared to China?” Bokuden asked, his eyes wide.

“Yes, Father. You were born in the wrong country.”

“If Yukio knows that the Mongols have come here to pave the way for an invasion, he is a traitor,” said Hideyori. “If he does not realize their purpose, he is a fool. A very dangerous fool.”

“He is neither, my lord,” said Taniko. “He does not conspire with the Mongols, and he is fully aware of the risk in bringing them to our shores. He did it because this was the only way he could have any hope of defeating the Takashi. Believe me, my lord, he fights, not for himself, but for you.”

Hideyori smiled faintly. “I believe that you speak honestly. When I meet Yukio he will have a chance to prove his loyalty. If he agrees without objection to what I intend to order, he will pass at least one test.”

Bokuden frowned. “What will you tell him to do, my lord?”

“I will command him to turn over the Mongol troops to me.”

Four lanterns burned around the rectangular stone tank in a shadowy room on the ground floor of one of the Rokuhara towers. In one corner two priests sat reading aloud from a huge book of the Buddhist sutras, each monk chanting a verse in turn. A pair of acolytes held the book up for them. A priest-physician beckoned Atsue forward. Atsue approached the tank and peered down into it. A stout figure wrapped in white cloths lay in the tank, panting like a beached whale. Water covered the body almost completely, except for the shining, shaven head, which was propped up on a large wooden pillow. The eyes were open, staring upwards, and Atsue automatically followed them to see the lantern light reflected from the rippling water in the tank to the ceiling.

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