Shike – Day 192 of 306

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.

Atsue turned as he passed under the Rasho Mon for a last look at the city. Even at this distance he could see the three towers of the Rokuhara off to the east. A bright crimson flicker on the nearest tower caught his eye. At first he thought it might be the setting sun reflecting on some gilded ornament, but then he recognized fire. The Rokuhara was burning. His heart stopped for a moment, then grew heavy with sorrow. If only I hadn’t looked back, he thought, as he watched the castle that had been his home for eight years enveloped in smoke and streamers of flame. Red banners on the Rokuhara to the very end. Now, over other parts of the city, pillars of smoke appeared, like the trunks of enormous trees.

“Are they burning the whole city?” he cried.

“No,” said a young man riding beside him. “Just our palaces. Why leave them for those Muratomo dogs?”

Looking back again, Atsue saw a wall of fire and smoke rise directly to the north, at the opposite end of Redbird Avenue. A chill of horror shook him.

“Not the Imperial Palace?”

“Why not? Wasn’t it ours, too?”

“But my family is there. Princess Kazuko and my son.”

The other young man’s face registered sympathy and alarm. “I’m sure they got everyone out before they set fire to it.” He patted Atsue’s arm briefly and rode off, the tragedy being too much for him to respond to adequately.

There were many Takashi supporters and relatives in the Imperial Palace, Atsue thought. Surely they had evacuated the place. Still, to destroy the work of so many years in an hour was a vicious, spiteful act, and it shamed him that it was his family that had decreed it and carried it out. The Imperial Palace belonged to the Sacred Islands, to the gods, not to the Takashi family. And now there were fires in every neighbourhood. Thousands of smaller houses, as well as the mansions of the great, were going up in flames. The whole city might well be in ashes by nightfall if the fires spread. As the Imperial party passed through the gateway he heard a steady, heavy, monotonous tolling from somewhere in the distance. Looking back, he saw the pagoda of the Gion Temple in the centre of the city, almost hidden by smoke. Whether the monks were sounding the bell as a fire alarm or were ringing out a farewell to the Takashi he did not know, but in the sad sound of the bell he heard a lament for the passing of all things.

The Takashi flight followed the Shujaku Road towards the Inland Sea. They pressed on through the night without stopping, different shifts of bearers taking turns with the Imperial palanquin. At dawn, Notaro and his personal guards rode up to the Imperial party with a great fluttering of Red Dragon pennons. At Notaro’s order the bearers set down the palanquin and all prostrated themselves while the yawning Little Emperor, his mother and a group of ladies-in-waiting stepped down from the palanquin and went for a walk in a near-by field. After they had once again retired behind the curtains, Notaro called together the hundred young samurai of the Imperial escort.

“Which of you is in command?” He had lost weight since Tonamiyama, and his eyes were sunk in hollows over bony cheeks. He looked nervously from one man to another, his gaze settling nowhere, like a fly trying to escape from a room.

After a pause one of the young men said diffidently, “I don’t think we have a commander, Lord Notaro.”

“How in the name of Beautiful Island Princess can you guard the Emperor properly without anyone being in charge? This should have been reported to me. Has no one any sense in this army? Must I discover everything myself?”

Notaro’s glance fell on Atsue. “You’ll do. You’re Kiyosi’s son, after all, and you’ve had combat experience. You are in command of His Imperial Majesty’s escort until further notice. Make these palanquin bearers run, if it kills them. We must get the Emperor to Hyogo and aboard a ship for the west.” Notaro beckoned his aide to bring his horse.

Atsue stepped closer to him to speak privately. “Please, honoured Uncle, my wife the Princess Kazuko, and my son Sametono, were left behind in the Imperial Palace. Since the palace has been burned, I’m concerned about their safety.”

Notaro stared at him. “Worrying about your wife? You should be ashamed of yourself. I’m sure I have no idea where any of my wives or children are at this moment, and I’m concerned about more important matters. Are you a samurai or aren’t you?”

“Forgive me, honoured Uncle,” Atsue whispered, his face burning. “How is Grandfather?”

Notaro stared at the ground, then spoke in a barely audible voice. “I do not want this known. The great Lord Sogamori is no longer with us.”

“No,” Atsue whispered. Even though he had known Sogamori was dying, Notaro’s words were a shock. Why had everything been taken from him? The power of the Takashi was gone, Heian Kyo and the Rokuhara were gone. Kazuko and Sametono were in the hands of the enemy. His father was long dead, now his grandfather was gone. He wondered if his mother were still alive somewhere.

“Did he die of his fever?” he asked Notaro.

“I was not present.”

“When will we hold his funeral, Uncle?”

Notaro did not answer. After a moment, Atsue repeated his question.

“We do not have his body,” Notaro choked out.

“Do you mean that Grandfather’s body is in the hands of the enemy?” Atsue was stunned, horrified. “How could we let that happen, Uncle?”

Notaro shook his head and closed his eyes. Tears squeezed from under his eyelids.

“He was among the last to leave the capital. They had to find a special carriage big and strong enough to hold him and a tub of water. By the time he was prepared for travel there were only a thousand samurai left in the Rokuhara to escort him. Still, we thought that would be enough. I was at the head of the march, several hours’ ride away. During the night Yukio’s men attacked and cut off the end of the column just south of Takatsuki. I didn’t find out that it had happened until hours later. It was too late to go back and try to rescue them.”

“Was Grandfather already dead when the Muratomo attacked?”

Notaro looked at Atsue. Never had Atsue seen such shame and anguish in a man’s face.

“I don’t know.”

Atsue wanted to scream. He felt a sudden, overpowering nausea. Could his grandfather have been captured alive by the enemy? Notaro should have sent the entire Takashi army back to attempt a rescue, even if rescue was impossible. To the last man, every Takashi, even the Emperor, should have died trying to save Sogamori. Hating Notaro, Atsue bit back the things he wanted to say. Notaro was his lord and leader, standing in place of his father and grandfather. To show disrespect to the chieftain of the clan now would only add a further blot to the hideously stained honour of the Takashi.

Restraining himself with a painful effort, Atsue said only, “How sad that the greatest man of his age, after a life of many victories, should face a degrading death alone at the hands of his enemies.”

Notaro was openly weeping now. “You don’t understand, Atsue. You’ll never understand. I’m the head of our family now. I have to make the plans and decisions. After Tonamiyama I wanted to take my life, but Father forbade it. There was no one else, he said, of the age and experience and seniority in the clan to take my place. I must live and lead, though I have proven that I am unfit for it.” With a jerk of his body, Notaro pulled himself away from Atsue, stumbled to his horse and rode away through the fields, the proud red banners of his escort belying the enormity of the humiliation the Takashi had suffered.

Atsue stood trying to bring himself under control before returning to the men he now commanded. But when he thought of the old man dying alone among enemies, the tears came hot to his eyes. When the Takashi were all safely in the western provinces, when Atsue could turn over responsibility for the Emperor to someone else, he would kill himself. Only that way could he protest the catastrophe, the utter degradation, that had befallen them. He would join Grandfather and Father in the next world. That was how he would mourn them.

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