Shike – Day 191 of 306

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.

“Hot. Hot,” Sogamori whispered hoarsely. “Everything is going up in flames.”

Grieving and frightened, Atsue looked down at his grandfather.

Since the loss of his father and his mother, Atsue had relied on Sogamori as the one indestructible person in his life. He was like that great tortoise on whose back the whole world rested. It was unbelievable that any disease could strike the old man down. Some said Sogamori’s illness had been brought on by the Tonamiyama disaster. Others maintained that he was cursed because he had ordered the destruction of the Buddhist and Zinja temples at Nara and the massacre of their inhabitants.

Atsue wanted to reach into the tank and shake Sogamori, demand that he come out of there and shoulder his burdens. Our army is destroyed, Grandfather, he said only to himself. The enemy is a day’s ride from the capital. You can’t leave us now. You must tell us what to do. He laid his hand gently on Sogamori’s forehead. Instantly, he pulled it back, as if his palm had touched a hot brazier. Now he understood why Sogamori spoke of flames, why he was kept in a stone tank which was drained every hour and refilled with fresh, cold water from the well of Senshuin on Mount Hiei. The old man was consumed by fever.

At the touch of Atsue’s hand, Sogamori rolled yellow-stained eyes towards him. “I’m dying, Kiyosi-chan.”

Kiyosi. He thinks I’m my father, Atsue thought. Should I tell him who I am? “No, Grandfather. You’ll get better.”

Sogamori raised himself in the tank and put his hand on Atsue’s wrist. Atsue, had to break free. The heat from Sogamori’s hand was unbearable.

“When I am dead, Kiyosi, do not chant sutras in my memory. Do not build temples or pagodas for the repose of my soul.” Sogamori bared his teeth, still strong and white. He had never dyed his teeth, as so many of the younger Takashi had. “Only kill Muratomo no Yukio as quickly as you can, and lay his head before my tomb. That will be the best offering you can make for me in this world or in the next.” His eyes went out of focus and he fell back, gasping.

Atsue remained kneeling by the tank for another hour, but Sogamori did not speak again. From outside the room Atsue heard frantic cries, the thumping of boxes, the lowing of oxen and the clatter of horses’ hooves. At last, giving up hope of really speaking with his grandfather, he stood up and left him.

A short time later, dressed in full armour and mounted on the dappled grey horse that the veteran samurai, Hino Juro, had found for him after Tonamiyama, Atsue was riding up Redbird Avenue, forcing his way against the crowds fleeing the capital. People kept looking to the north of the city, as if they expected to see the hills swarming with the dreaded Mongols. Once or twice Atsue was tempted to draw his sword to threaten the people blocking his way, but such a use would be beneath Kogarasu’s dignity. At last he came to the main gateway of the Imperial Palace.

He ached to visit Princess Kazuko and the baby just once more, but he could not. He had spent all the time he could spare with his grandfather, and he had to join his assigned unit at the palace at once. Princess Kazuko had borne Atsue a son, Sametono, two months earlier, while the battle was raging at Tonamiyama. Following custom, the princess and the baby stayed at her parents’ home, the Imperial Palace, where Atsue visited her whenever he could. His wife and child were somewhere in that complex now. They were not taking part in this mass flight. Neither was ready to travel. They would be safe enough here. Crude as the Muratomo might be, they would hardly harm an Imperial Princess and her baby. It broke Atsue’s heart to leave without seeing his little family, but filial piety had demanded that he put his dying grandfather first.

He rode across the palace grounds through crowds of samurai and civilian officials as confused and frightened as the crowds in the streets. Arriving at the Pure and Fresh Hall, he joined the band of young men from the best families who had the proud task of escorting the Emperor out of Heian Kyo.

One of the young men had heard bad news. The Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa and the Minister of the Left, Prince Sasaki no Horigawa, had both fled to Yukio the previous night.

“We’re still the government, and they’re still the outlaws,” said Atsue. “We have the Emperor.”

As ox-drawn carriage rolled past, preceded and followed by Shinto priests mounted on white horses and surrounded by hundreds of Buddhist warrior monks on horseback and armed with naginatas. Lucky for the Takashi that the temples around the capital had remained loyal, thought Atsue, or we might have had to fight our way out. The carriage contained the Imperial regalia—the sacred mirror, the sword and the necklace. The Three Treasures had been given to the first Emperor by the sun goddess, and they had been the sacred symbols of Imperial authority ever since. This was the first time the Imperial regalia had left the palace in the five hundred years since the founding of Heian Kyo. Atsue and the other samurai climbed down from their horses and prostrated themselves as the cart passed.

Then the little Emperor, carried in a gilded chair, appeared on the wooden steps of the Pure and Fresh Hall. He wore the formal Imperial robes in apricot. His black cap of office was decorated with pearls, but under it he still had the shoulder-length hair of a child. Emperor Antoku, grandson of Go-Shirakawa and of Sogamori, the proudest jewel of the Takashi family, was six years old. His samurai guards all pressed their faces into the white gravel at the sight of him. When Atsue looked up again the Emperor had disappeared into the giant, gold-roofed Imperial palanquin. Atsue watched his aunt, the Imperial mother Kenreimon, a moon-faced lady in her thirties, enter the palanquin behind Antoku. The carriers raised the huge structure smoothly, and Atsue’s heart lifted with pride and pleasure as he saw the golden phoenix on its roof gleaming against the blue sky. We have the Emperor, he repeated to himself. He and the other noble samurai mounted and surrounded the palanquin, and all moved off together.

After their procession left the Imperial Palace grounds, Atsue stood up on his stirrups to see down Redbird Avenue. The vast thoroughfare was an endless jumble of mounted samurai and carriages of the Takashi nobility. Dozens of Red Dragon banners fluttered as proudly as if they were going into battle instead of fleeing from it. The common people had been pushed into the side streets.

Although he could not see that far, Atsue guessed that the head of the caravan was already passing beneath the Rasho Mon. The procession stretched the entire length of Heian Kyo and even now it was not complete. More carriages and carts, more mounted warriors, more banners, would be joining the line of march.

It was late afternoon, the hour of the rooster, by the time the Imperial palanquin reached the Rasho Mon. Even with the Emperor’s outriders forcing a path through the refugees, it was simply impossible for vehicles, horsemen and masses of people on foot to get out of the way quickly. The retreat was disorganized. Atsue had seen no high-ranking officers, had received no orders, for hours.

Where were they going? He only knew that they were headed south towards the sea, and from there to the western provinces. The western half of the Inland Sea had been Takashi territory since the founding of the clan. There they had won their first holdings and built their first ships. There Sogamori’s grandfather had fought his battles with the pirates who then infested the Inland Sea, and thus had laid the foundations of Takashi power.

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