Shike – Day 193 of 306

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.

Chapter Twelve

The rice paddies south of Takatsuki were littered with the corpses of horses and men, most of the bodies sprouting clusters of arrows. Here and there lay the burnt wreck of a carriage. The Mongols had used fire arrows to light their targets in the previous night’s attack. Riding along a narrow dirt road, Jebu noticed a movement in a nearby ditch. A man, pierced by so many arrows he looked like a sea urchin, was, amazingly, still alive. None of the arrows had gone deep enough or struck a vital spot. Groaning, he raised his head and reached for a sword that lay near his lacerated hand. Tuman-bashi Torluk also saw the man and signalled to a party of foragers who were collecting weapons and searching for any loot that might have been overlooked by the advancing troops. The Mongols fell upon the samurai, stripped away the armour that had saved him from death until now, and finished him with their short knives. Jebu turned away. A miserable death.

“This is the place,” said Torluk, pointing to a small temple halfway up the side of a terraced hill. A group of Mongols lounged at the entrance of the brightly painted Chinese-style building.

Riding abreast of Torluk, Jebu and Taitaro made an odd pair. Jebu was in full battle armour, only the headcloth he wore in preference to a helmet distinguishing him as a monk. Taitaro had on nothing but his grey Zinja robe and the white abbot’s cord around his neck. Yukio had sent Jebu to ride with the Mongols as his personal representative. Jebu did not relish spending time in the company of Arghun and Torluk, but he was the only man qualified to speak to the Mongols for Yukio.

“Perhaps we can at least get a ransom out of this,” said Torluk, speaking in Mongol. “I’ll tell you, the men need some sort of reward after being told that no Mongols are permitted to enter Heian Kyo. It was we who gave Yukio the capital. Now we are forbidden to ride in his victory procession and to share in the looting of the city.”

“There will be no looting of the capital,” Jebu said. “The capital was badly enough damaged by the Takashi as they left. Lord Yukio has traded your satisfaction for something more valuable, if you’ll forgive me for saying so. His Retired Majesty, Go-Shirakawa, has given his sanction to the Muratomo. He has appointed Yukio to be Lord High Constable and Envoy of the Retired Emperor. Yukio is no longer a rebel. The task of winning support and recruiting samurai is now very much easier. In return, Yukio could do no less than agree to Go-Shirakawa’s demand that no foreign troops enter Heian Kyo.”

They had arrived at the low wall around the temple grounds. As they dismounted and approached the doorway of the temple, three shaven-headed men in the yellow robes of Buddhist priests barred their way. Motioning Jebu and Torluk to wait, Taitaro stepped forward, smiling, and bowed to them.

“Is this your temple, holy ones?”

“No, sensei,” said the monk in the centre. “This is the Takatsuki Temple of Kwannon. We found it deserted. We felt it would be the safest place to bring our great lord.” The monk motioned with his head towards the dark interior of the temple. “We have attended him throughout his illness. His guards are all dead. We did not fight, because we carry no weapons, but if you intend to harm him you will have to kill us first.”

“Well spoken, Suzuki-shiké,” said Taitaro with a smile. “But now that your charge is coming to the end of his journey of life, you may yield your responsibilities to us.”

Suzuki smiled back. “Are you formally relieving me of my mission, Taitaro-sensei?”

Taitaro bowed. “Yes.” The other two priests stared at Suzuki, then began to back away from him.

Taitaro chuckled. “Forgive us, brothers, for having disguised a member of our Order as one of you. We felt it necessary, after the destruction of our temple at Nara, to keep a representative close to the chancellor.”

“You poisoned him,” one of the priests exclaimed.

“Not at all,” said Taitaro. “Suzuki-shiké is an expert physician. His ministrations probably prolonged Lord Sogamori’s life. I grant you, we had good cause to assassinate the chancellor, but we only wanted advance warning of any more attacks on our temples. Now, let us see him.”

Torluk waited in the doorway of the temple as Jebu and Taitaro entered the dark hall. Jebu recalled his intention of killing Sogamori at the first opportunity, to avenge the death of his mother, Nyosan. Now the man whose command had obliterated Zinja temples, whose word had been law throughout the Sunrise Land, lay panting and groaning at Jebu’s feet on the polished cedar floor of an out-of-the-way, deserted temple, and Jebu felt no wish to speed his departure into eternity. Death was very close for the old man, in any case, and would now probably be a blessing. From a candlelit altar the serene face of Kwannon, goddess of mercy, looked down upon Sogamori. He could find no better place to end his days than beneath the eyes of Kwannon. He lay flat on his back, his arms at his sides, his great belly rising and falling under the wet cloths wrapped around him. Over and over he whimpered, “Hot. Hot.” Taitaro knelt beside him, put his hand on the shaven head and drew it back quickly. Then he took a silk purse full of gold needles from inside his robe and began inserting the needles into Sogamori’s bare shoulders and arms. One of the Buddhist priests cried out in protest.

“I’m not torturing him,” said Taitaro with a smile. “This is a Chinese method of treating the sick. I am placing the needles so as to relieve his fever. I cannot save his life, but I can ease his dying.” Why in the name of the Willow Tree would Taitaro want to make Sogamori’s dying moments easier? Jebu wondered. The Zinja were physicians only because a warrior must be able to treat his own wounds and those of his comrades. Now, using some powder he carried with him, Taitaro was mixing a potion in water. Drop by drop he poured it between Sogamori’s thick, fever-cracked lips. Gradually the Takashi patriarch stopped moaning. Taitaro put his hand back on his forehead and let it rest there. After a moment, Sogamori opened his eyes and looked at Taitaro.

“Have you brought me Yukio’s head?” he whispered.

He’s still delirious, thought Jebu, but Taitaro only answered, “It is not Yukio’s time to fall. It is your time now, Lord Sogamori. All those who are great must be brought low.”

“Who are you?” Sogamori rasped. His eyes were more alert now. Taitaro’s treatment was having its effect.

“I am the former abbot Taitaro of the Order of Zinja, Lord Sogamori.”

“A Zinja. I have forbidden all Zinja to approach me. Except, of course, for that monk Suzuki, who thinks he deceives me with his Buddhist robes. I keep him around so I can feed the Zinja false information.” Sogamoni laughed feebly. Jebu smiled over at Suzuki, who shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“Listen, Lord Sogamori,” said Taitaro. “You are going to die. I would judge that you do not have more than an hour of life left to you. I advise you to spend it well. If you wish we will withdraw and leave you to be comforted by these two Buddhist priests who stayed faithfully by you when all your guards were killed.”

Sogamori’s eyes widened. He had been unconscious ever since the evacuation of Heian Kyo and had been unaware of the military situation for many days before that. Now he asked Taitaro quick, probing questions. He learned that the Takashi had lost the capital, that he was in a Buddhist temple south of Takatsuki, and that he was in the power of the Muratomo. His reaction was calm and courageous. Jebu could not help but feel admiration. Sogamori had taken the news just as a Zinja would.

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