Shike – Day 204 of 306

“Who are you?” Yukio demanded.

“My name is Takashi no Harako. I was an attendant to His Imperial Majesty’s grandmother, the widow of the late Chancellor Sogamori. My husband was General of Cavalry Takashi no Mizoguchi. I am carrying his child. Now my Emperor, my lady and my husband are all dead. I beg you to let me join them beneath the waves.”

“What happened to His Imperial Majesty?” Yukio demanded.

“His grandmother told him that his cause was lost and his enemies would never permit an Emperor related to the Takashi to remain on the throne. It was time for him to leave this sorrowful world, she said. She gave him the sacred sword to hold and the sacred necklace to wear. He asked her if it would hurt to drown. She told him, “We will find another capital beneath the waves. Grandfather Sogamori will be there, along with all Your Majesty’s ancestors.” Then he said he was ready to go, and, weeping, she enfolded him in her arms and jumped over the side of the ship. They sank out of sight at once.” Lady Harako burst into sobs. “The poor little Emperor. He was only ten years old.”

“My lord, come look at this,” a samurai called. Yukio went to the rail, followed by Jebu. The heaving waters were dotted with bobbing heads, heads that disappeared as quickly as splashes of raindrops on a pool, to be replaced at once by hundreds of others, as more men jumped from their ships. The last of the Takashi warriors were following the example of the boy Emperor and his Court and giving themselves to the waves.

“Let me drown, too,” Lady Harako begged.

“You said the sword and the necklace went to the bottom with His Imperial Majesty,” said Yukio. “What of the sacred mirror?”

“For all I know, it is still aboard the ship.”

Sending Lady Harako below deck despite her pleas that she be allowed to die, Yukio summoned Soaring Crane’s priest and ordered him to board the late Emperor’s ship, search for the sacred mirror and bring it back to Soaring Crane. Then he turned back to the rail to watch the end of the Takashi. Many of the drowning warriors had jumped into the water clutching their red banners. As their armour pulled them under, only the red squares of silk remained on the surface. It was all over in moments. The empty ships bobbed on the waves. The Takashi banners were strewn over the strait like red maple leaves on a woodland stream in autumn. A cold evening mist spread from the shore.

The cries of the victorious Muratomo echoed like the screams of gulls over the dark water.

A rowboat pulled up beside Soaring Crane, and a man with bound arms was pushed over the railing to stand sullenly before Yukio. He was unarmoured, and his under robe, the red brocade of a general, dripped on the planking. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken and lifeless. After some prodding by the samurai who had brought him to Yukio, he gave his name in a low voice.

“I am Takashi no Notaro, commander-in-chief of His Imperial Majesty’s forces and son of the late Imperial chancellor Takashi no Sogamori.”

“Lord Notaro,” said Yukio wonderingly. “How is it that all your clansmen have destroyed themselves and the chieftain alone is left behind?”

“We saw it all, Lord Yukio,” one of the samurai with Notaro said. “All the men on his ship were jumping into the water while he hesitated. At last one of his own officers pushed him over the side. Whereupon the coward stripped off his armour and tried to swim to shore. We fished him out.”

“If I ever again hear any man refer to a son of the great Sogamori in rude terms, I will personally take his head,” said Yukio evenly. “Lord Notaro is to be treated with all courtesy and given every comfort that we can supply. Escort him to the master cabin and move my things out of there. And untie him.”

“What are you going to do with me?” Notaro asked.

“I must send you to my brother, Lord Hideyori, for judgment.”

“My father should have killed both you and your brother when you were children,” said Notaro. “His generosity has destroyed his family.”

“Excuse me, but it was not your father’s generosity that moved him to spare my brother and me, Lord Notaro,” said Yukio with a smile. “It was my mother’s beauty.”

A rowboat carried the priest back from the Emperor’s abandoned vessel. A samurai walking before the white-robed priest struck a small gong to call attention to the holy object being carried on board. All on Soaring Crane prostrated themselves. In trembling hands the priest held a silk bag. Within, Jebu knew, was another, more worn, silk bag, and within that another, and so on to a number no one knew. Each time the outer covering of the sacred mirror began to deteriorate, it would be placed in a new one without removing any of the previous silk bags. The reflection of the sun goddess herself, it was said, could be seen in the sacred mirror, death for any mortal to look upon. The priest carried the one surviving Treasure of the Realm below to the ship’s shrine.

Placing Muratomo crews aboard the abandoned Takashi ships, Yukio ordered the victorious fleet to sail at once for Hyogo. Homing pigeons were released to carry word of the victory of Shimonoseki Strait to the capital and to Kamakura. Yukio leaned on the rail and looked out at the drifting red banners receding sternwards. Joining him, Jebu saw tears on his face.

“Why are you crying, Yukio-san?” said Jebu softly. “Is it from joy at our victory?”

“I am thinking about the Takashi, and how nothing lasts,” said Yukio slowly. “How magnificent they were when I was a boy. How swiftly their glory has vanished. How long will the kami permit us to enjoy our own victory?”

The following morning, as they sailed eastwards past jewel-like islands, a samurai reported to Yukio that Lady Harako had disappeared during the night.

“It is better for her,” said Moko. “She said she was with child. Before I left Kamakura, Lord Hideyori had issued orders that all whose descent could be traced from Sogamori’s grandfather are to be sent beyond. Her baby would have been torn from her as soon as it was born. Now they will sit together on the same lotus blossom in the next world.”

With a chill, Jebu remembered that Atsue had said his wife at Heian Kyo, Princess Kazuko, had a child by him. Taniko’s grandson or granddaughter.

“How admirable was the Lady Harako’s determination to kill herself,” said Yukio. “How pathetic is Takashi no Notaro’s clinging to a useless life. I hope I may have the wisdom to see it, when I no longer belong in this world, and have the grace to step cheerfully into the Void.”

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