Shike – Day 195 of 306

“I will never understand what you did,” Jebu said later, as he and his father rode north along the Shujaku. Even though they could not see Heian Kyo, a grey cloud to the north told them it was still smouldering.

“An inner voice told me I should not let Sogamori be tortured, killed and mutilated,” said Taitaro. “He seems a monster to us now, a man who destroyed his country, but perhaps it is as he told us; even his evil karma will benefit mankind. Perhaps, indeed, he was no ordinary person. There are moments in my life when our notions of right and wrong, our customs, common sense itself, must be set aside and I must act in a strange way that seems right, though I can see no reason for it. This encounter with Sogamori was such a moment. If you would understand it better, spend more time with the Jewel.”

Chapter Thirteen

Yukio urged his chestnut horse down the steep, pine-shaded path that wound over the eastern slope of Mount Higashi. It was the hour of the rooster, and from the top of the mountain he had seen the setting sun glowing on the rooftops of Heian Kyo. On this side, twilight had already fallen. It was cold enough now, in the Ninth Month, for his horse’s breath and his own to turn to steam in the air before him. The prospect of meeting Hideyori made Yukio nervous. In childhood he had known Hideyori as someone who was big, formidable, older, who treated him with undisguised contempt. Now he reminded himself of all he had seen and accomplished since he last saw his half-brother. His victories surpassed those of any other general in the history of the Sunrise Land. Hideyori had yet to win a single important battle. If Hideyori was about to take control of the government, it was Yukio who had given it to him as a gift. I am not a child any longer, Yukio thought, I am thirty years old. Still, Yukio felt towards Hideyori as a boy feels towards a revered and feared elder brother. Why, he wondered, had Hideyori insisted in his messages that Yukio and he must meet alone, in concealment, outside the city? Why the furtiveness? He noticed a row of tumbled stones along the side of the road. Over twenty years ago, Jebu had told him, a Zinja temple had stood here. It had been destroyed by an earthquake and never rebuilt. A horse and rider stood motionless in the path ahead of Yukio. There was something ghost-like about the figure in dark armour sitting astride a pale grey horse.

Yukio climbed down from his horse and called, “Hideyori? Brother, is that you?” There was no answer. After a moment, the armoured figure dismounted and slowly walked towards him. In the half-light Yukio saw, under a horned helmet, a stern, strong face with glittering black eyes, a face that immediately reminded him of his father, Domei.

Now Yukio was sure this was Hideyori. He dropped to his knees and pressed his forehead into the earth.

“My lord. My brother. I am your younger brother, Muratomo no Yukio.”

“I know. Stand up.” The voice was gruff, the words rude. Hideyori had spent the last twenty years of his life in the uncultivated eastern provinces, Yukio reminded himself. Perhaps that was the way they spoke there. Yukio stood and smiled at Hideyori, but there was no answering smile.

“I brought you a gift, Brother. Give me leave to get it.” At Hideyori’s nod, Yukio went to his horse and unstrapped a long package wrapped in green silk, which he held out with both hands. Frowning, Hideyori unwrapped it, saw the ancient sword with the silver dragon coiling around the hilt, and gave Yukio a questioning look.

“I am sure my honoured brother recognizes this sword.”

“It is Higekiri,” said Hideyori wonderingly.

Yukio told him how the sword had been found in Sogamori’s baggage. “As head of our family, you are the rightful owner of Higekiri. I am happy to be able to present it to you on our first meeting.” Yukio only regretted that the gift could not have been given at a splendid public ceremony. All Heian Kyo was eager to see and greet the chieftain of the victorious Muratomo clan. But Yukio had promised himself that he would offer the sword to Hideyori at the very first opportunity. Yukio had hoped that when he met his half-brother their common blood would kindle a warmth between them that would dispel his trepidation. But nothing, it seemed, had changed since his childhood. He still dreaded Hideyori’s cold contempt.

Hideyori seated himself cross-legged on the ground and gestured to Yukio to join him. He rewrapped the sword and laid it across his knees.

“There are things we must discuss now,” he said. “In a day or two you and I and our officers will be meeting with the Retired Emperor and his councillors. We should not disagree before them.” Yukio was overcome as, point by point, in rapid succession, Hideyori outlined his plans. Yukio, he proposed, would take to the water, seizing all the ships he could find along the coast, and hound the Takashi from their island strongholds and ports along the Inland Sea. Hideyori would wage a land war against the Takashi and their allies throughout Honshu. For now, Go-Shirakawa would reign in place of the Son of Heaven. After the war they would choose a successor to the Takashi usurper, the boy Antoku. Clearly, Hideyori had been thinking carefully about these things while Yukio had been blundering from battle to battle. Yukio felt foolish. It was for the best that Hideyori was the older of the two of them and the head of the family.

“Do you agree to all of it so far?” Hideyori asked.

“I am a warrior, not a statesman,” said Yukio. “I am sure your judgment in these matters is superior to mine. My only thought has been to overthrow the Takashi and win justice for the Muratomo.”

“Justice we will have in good measure, Yukio-san,” said Hideyori, a friendlier note in his voice. It warmed Yukio to be addressed as Yukio-san by his forbidding elder brother. “You know, I had no idea what sort of person you would be or what you would want. We seem to agree on most things, as brothers should. Let us turn to the difficult question of the Mongols, then. You know, of course, that there are those who say that you have come to conquer our land for the Emperor of Mongolia, who has promised to make you his vassal-king?”

Was Hideyori going to condemn him, as so many others had, for bringing a foreign army into the Sacred Islands? “What must I do, cut my belly open to prove my loyalty?”

“Do not suggest such a thing even lightly, Yukio-san,” said Hideyori. “There’s really a very simple way for you to show you are not an agent of foreigners. Relinquish command of the Mongols.”

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