Shike – Day 223 of 306

Taniko remembered an afternoon in Oshu, long ago, on a hilltop overlooking the Chusonji Temple, when a few words from Jebu had brought their happiness to an end with the suddenness of an earthquake. Now, seeing in her mind the glitter of that golden roof and the temple pillars, she felt tears coming to her eyes. I must send for Moko and tell him about this at once, she thought. At last we know where Jebu is, and that, for the moment, he is alive.

“What will the Mongols do when they catch up with your brother, my lord?” she asked.

“That depends on Yukio, of course, Taniko-san,” said Hideyori. “What I desire above all else is to end this wrangling between us that began when he permitted the Imperial Court to turn his head. Their orders are to arrest him and bring him here to me. If he comes peaceably, we will discuss our differences. If we can come to a meeting of the minds, I will pardon him. I have sent Prince Horigawa to Oshu along with the Mongols. He acts as my personal emissary to Lord Hidehira, urging him, out of his old friendship to my family, to help make peace between Yukio and me. However things turn out, Horigawa will then proceed to Kyushu to meet with the Mongol ambassadors.” So, in spite of Hideyori’s talk of marriage, Horigawa was still part of his plans, thought Taniko.

“Are you sure you can trust Prince Horigawa with such important matters, my lord?” she asked.

“Taniko,” said Bokuden reprovingly. “Your conduct towards Prince Horigawa has shamed our whole family. You should not speak of him.”

“The question is a sensible one,” said Hideyori with a stare that crushed Taniko’s father. “The answer is that Prince Horigawa, like all who serve me, knows that he had better carry out my orders precisely if he wishes to keep his head.”

Bokuden cringed and had nothing further to say.

A cold, damp wind from the sea swept across the grey plain, blowing the white cloaks of the mourners and spurring the priests to hasten their funeral chants. The long white beard of Fujiwara no Hidehira, the late lord of Oshu, fluttered in the breeze. His body, on the pyramid of logs his people had built to do him final honour, was wrapped in a dark green robe brocaded in gold with a scene of mountain pines. Lord Hidehira’s eldest son, Yerubutsu, his round head topped by a tall cap of lacquered black silk, stepped forward and held a torch to the pyre. Fed by the wind, the flames leaped from log to log, and the containers of sweet-smelling oils sizzled and released their perfumes on the air. The body on the pile of logs disappeared behind a blazing orange wall.

The people of Oshu had gathered on this plain to the west of their capital, Hiraizumi, to bid farewell to their lord, who had passed into the Void at the amazing age of ninety-six. Hidehira had ruled Oshu for so long that most of his subjects could remember no earlier lord. The masses of common people were held back from the pyre by a hollow square of four thousand warriors. The samurai wore full armour, and their helmet ornaments and naked weapons reflected a steel-grey sky. In the midst of the soldiery, Lord Hidehira’s large family was gathered, headed by Yerubutsu, the new chieftain of the Northern Fujiwara and lord of Oshu, surrounded by brothers, sons and nephews. All of them looked with poorly veiled hostility at their distinguished guest, Muratomo no Yukio, who stood off to one side, dressed, as were all the others, in white robes of mourning. Towering over Yukio was the monk Jebu, who added his Zinja prayers for the departed to those of the Buddhist and Shinto priests.

Little was said while the flames crackled, sending up puffs of scented smoke to be torn to shreds by the wind before they could rise into the sky. When the pyre had burned down to ground level, Yukio approached Yerubutsu and bowed deeply, showing his reverence for his host’s new rank. Yerubutsu nodded coldly.

“Now I am alone in the world,” said Yukio.

“My father commanded me to protect you and to help you to become once again the greatest leader in the realm,” said Yerubutsu, with no more enthusiasm than he had shown when Yukio sought shelter with Lord Hidehira after his return from China. “Even as my father was a father to you, I will be a brother to you.”

“I need a brother,” said Yukio, “my blood brother having become my mortal enemy.”

“You will always be safe with us,” said Yerubutsu, fuming away and motioning his kinsmen to follow.

Before the new chieftain would move out of earshot Yukio called, “Is it true, Lord Yerubutsu, as I hear, that an army sent by my brother is approaching the border of your land?”

Yerubutsu reddened slightly. These warriors of Oshu were not used to dissembling. With a grunt of resignation he turned again to face Yukio.

“I had intended to tell you about this army, Yukio-san, but I didn’t want to worry you unnecessarily. We do not yet know who sent them, or why. In any case, it is only a small force, about three thousand. We have fifty thousand men under arms here.”

“I don’t mean to sound critical, Lord Yerubutsu,” said Yukio with a gentle smile, “but if I had been doing your scouting for you, I would have learned much more about this army by now. As you see, with no help at all I was able to find out about its existence, even though you so kindly tried to protect me from this disturbing knowledge. Perhaps you could spare me a small troop of samurai, and I could assist you in intelligence gathering?”

Yerubutsu’s grin was like that of a cannibal demon in a Buddhist painting of hell. “We are fully able to protect you, Yukio-san. You are our guest. We wish to free you from care.”

As the vast crowd drifted away from the cremation site, leaving the final burial of Hidehira’s ashes to the priests of the Chusonji, Yukio and Jebu walked by themselves towards the mountains to the north.

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