Shike – Day 205 of 306

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.”

Chapter Seventeen

The captain of the guard at the bridge over the Rokuhara’s broad moat made a face of revulsion. “It is not a pleasant thing to see children buried alive, and their mothers stabbed or strangled.”

“Who orders these executions?” Jebu asked the captain, his heart filled with foreboding.

“A tribunal presided over by Lord Shima Bokuden of Kamakura and Prince Sasaki no Horigawa,” the captain answered. “They act as deputies of my lord Hideyori.”

Horigawa. At the sound of the name the hairs on the back of Jebu’s neck prickled, and his hands itched to crush the scrawny windpipe.

“Just as I told you, shiké,” said Moko. Mounted on horses, Jebu and Moko stood side by side at the entrance to the Rokuhara. Hideyori had commanded that the Takashi stronghold be rebuilt. It was now Bakufu headquarters in Heian Kyo. The three towers of the Rokuhara stood tall and forbidding again, as they had in the days of the Takashi, except that now the banners that bedecked the upcurving roofs were white. Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace to the north was still a blackened ruin, and no Son of Heaven occupied the throne. After the Muratomo victory in Shimonoseki Strait, old Go-Shirakawa, the Retired Emperor, could no longer delay bestowing on Hideyori the title he craved, Shogun, Supreme Commander. The new overlord of the Sunrise Land was now deciding at his leisure which of several pliable candidates would sit on the Imperial throne.

“Is the Imperial Princess Kazuko here at the Rokuhara?” Jebu asked. He had not forgotten Atsue’s concern for his young wife.

“All members of the Imperial family are housed here under the protection of the Muratomo,” said the samurai captain. His right cheek was riven by a scar that ran from temple to jaw. He spoke with the harsh accent of the eastern provinces, but there was respect in his voice when he addressed Jebu, whom he recognized at once as the legendary shiké who accompanied Lord Yukio in exile and in triumph.

“Is she one of those to be judged by the tribunal?”

“Yes,” said the scarred samurai. “It is said that her son is a direct descendant of that devil Sogamori. The child surely will not be allowed to live, but Prince Horigawa and Lord Bokuden are dealing with the easier cases first. Those involving the Imperial family require more delicate handling. What is your interest in the princess, shiké?”

Delicate handling indeed, Jebu thought, considering that the child whose execution was being prepared was Bokuden’s own great-grandson. Not that Bokuden would care about putting a member of his own family to death. If Taniko knew what was happening, though, she might use her influence with Hideyori to win a reprieve. But it would take thirty or forty days for a message to reach Kamakura and the reply to be received. By that time the boy would probably be in a premature grave. It was necessary to act immediately.

“I was there when the Takashi noble to whom Princess Kazuko was married fell in battle at Ichinotani,” Jebu said. “I promised him that I would tell the princess how he died. Where are the Imperial ladies quartered?”

The samurai indicated one of the Rokuhara’s newly rebuilt stone towers, but added, “You should apply to the secretary of the tribunal for permission to see her.”

“There is no need. It is a small matter, and I’ll only spend a moment with her.”

“If it were anybody but you, Shiké Jebu, I would refuse you admittance,” said the captain. “But I cannot say no to a hero of the War of the Dragons.”

“Thank you for your courtesy, captain,” said Jebu.

The scarred samurai bowed. “Nagamori Ikyu, at your service, shiké.”

“Moko-san, I’ll go on alone,” said Jebu. “Do you remember the shrine of Jimmu Tenno on Mount Higashi?”

Moko’s crossed eyes were wide with anxiety. “I can never forget it, shiké.”

“Be there with your escort, prepared to travel back to Kamakura, at the hour of the ape.” Moko had used his new wealth to hire and equip an entourage of samurai who saw to it that he was treated with proper respect despite his lack of skill at arms.

Jebu dismounted and walked his horse across the bridge over the Rokuhara’s moat, wide as a river. “The kami grant that I see you again, shiké,” Moko called. Jebu led his mount through the maze of narrow, high-walled passages designed to foil attackers. Tethering the horse before the thick stone wall at the base of the tower where the Imperial women were quartered, he strode past guards who, like Captain Ikyu, recognized him with awe. No one stopped him until he reached the second floor of the tower. There an old dragon of a lady-in-waiting, seated at a teak table piled high with scrolls, demanded to know his business. He asked for Princess Kazuko.

“What right has a mere warrior monk to request an audience with an Imperial princess?”

Jebu was amused at her ferocity. “As a disgraced member of the Imperial family, she is not so far above me.”

“She is not disgraced. She has not been judged.” Jebu sensed sympathy for the princess in the elderly woman’s tone.

“You need not protect her from me. I’m here to help her if I can.”

“How can I be sure of that?”

“If I were from Lord Bokuden and Prince Horigawa, would I need permission to see the princess?”

A short time later Jebu was in a small chamber facing a shadowy figure behind a screen painted with wild roses. The lady-in-waiting sat behind him. He could hear her agitated breathing.

“I don’t understand why you want to help us. You killed Atsue.” The voice was soft, melodious, the accent cultivated.

“Your husband died in battle, Imperial Highness. It was not I who killed him. Of all the Takashi, Atsue was the one I would never knowingly kill.”

“Why?” asked the gentle voice.

“Many years ago I vowed my life to the service of Atsue’s mother, the Lady Shima Taniko.”

“Were you her lover?”

“Your Imperial Highness is quick to sense feelings.”

“But Atsue’s father was Takashi no Kiyosi.”

“Karma has forced Lady Taniko and me to spend most of our lives apart, but that has not diminished my love for her.”

“A samurai lady and a warrior monk. How very sad and how beautiful.”

Jebu brought the conversation back to the business at hand. “The fact that you are of the Imperial house will not save your son from death, princess. Horigawa and Bokuden have only to write the necessary decrees to make it legal and proper to execute the boy.” There was a whimper from behind the screen. The princess made a hushing sound.

“I’m sorry,” said Jebu. “I would never have spoken so frankly if I had known the child was there.”

“I have heard that the children of the Zinja are introduced to the fear of death at an early age,” said Princess Kazuko. “If Sametono is to live at all, he must learn to live with death. I am prepared to trust you, Zinja. If we stay here Sametono will certainly die. What do you want us to do?”

“The trick I have in mind is an old and obvious one, but it is to our advantage that they will not expect you to try to escape. After all, you have never been outside Heian Kyo. You would not even know how to speak to a common person to ask for help. You are as much a prisoner of your way of life as of the Muratomo. As for the Muratomo, their discipline is slack. They’ve been fighting for five years, and they want to rest.”

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