Shike – Day 248 of 306

“Forgive me for saying it, but it makes it easier for us that the Shogun is so obviously about to die,” said Ryuichi. “Who would dare propose a successor for Lord Hideyori if there were a possibility of his recovering?”

The Bakufu’s leaders had agreed, as Taniko hoped they would, that Sametono must be the next Shogun. He was the only candidate whom all could accept without dispute. Next they decided, as Taniko had expected, that there must be a Regency until Sametono was old enough to govern, and that Shima Bokuden was the only possible choice for Regent. He would preside over a council of Bakufu officers.

“Hideyori did choose intelligent subordinates,” said Taniko. “Lesser men would have bickered for a month over so many important decisions.”

“Their intelligence in choosing my brother as Regent escapes me,” said Ryuichi. “No one respects him.”

“When strong men cannot find a leader whom everyone respects,” said Taniko, “they are better off with a leader whom no one respects.”

Now the Bakufu officers publicly announced that Hideyori had been badly injured in a fall from his horse and was unconscious. Even then they did not add that the Shogun was likely to die. They sent for Sametono, who came from the Shogun’s castle in an ox-drawn carriage like an old noble of Heian Kyo. The people of Kamakura lined up to watch the stately vehicle pass, knowing that the future of the realm rode in it. Taniko had not left Hideyori’s side all day, and she was still sitting there when Sametono entered. The boy’s round face was serious but calm. He looked thoughtfully down at Hideyori for a long time, then recited the invocation to Amida. From his sleeve he took a scroll.

“I wrote a poem for him. If I read it to him, do you think he’d hear it?”

“Perhaps,” Taniko said wearily. “We never know what unconscious people can hear.”

Sametono nodded and read his poem:

Beholding the stars,
I know that one day
They will fall from the sky.
If even stars must vanish,
Why mourn the shortness of life?

“That’s very beautiful, Sametono-chan. And it was kind of you to think of it.” Sametono took the flute, Little Branch, from its silk case at his belt. At the sight of the flute that had belonged to Kiyosi and Atsue, Taniko felt tears come to her eyes. To think, Hideyori would probably have killed this boy. Sametono sat on cushions at Hideyori’s feet and began to play soft, soothing airs, many of them well-known musical settings for the sutras. The priests in the corner of the room stopped chanting and listened with beatific smiles. Without apparent fatigue, Sametono played on for over an hour.

Hideyori opened his eyes. He blinked. The dark pupils focused on Taniko. His lips twitched. They were dry and stuck together. Taniko wet them with a damp cloth, and he licked his lips thirstily. She helped him sip water from a cup. A whisper crackled in his throat. She leaned forward, holding her hair back from her ear.

“Yukio is here. I can hear his flute.”

“That’s Sametono, your son. He is playing for your pleasure.”

“I never had any children. Karma. Get the priests to drive Yukio’s ghost away.” The fluttering lids curtained the dark eyes.

“What did he say, Mother?”

“He thanks you for your playing. He asks you to let him sleep now.”

That night she and Sametono slept side by side on pillows and quilt the priests set next to Hideyori’s bed. Somewhere in her dreams the pious chanting droned on. She woke many times during the night, listening to Hideyori’s laboured breathing, staring at his motionless face. There was a bubbling sound coming from his throat and chest. He’s going to drown, she thought, just as Horigawa did.

Sametono remained beside her the following morning, occupying himself by reading poems he had brought with him. Every so often he would read one aloud to her and the unconscious Hideyori. Taniko’s only fear was that Hideyori might waken and say something dreadful to Sametono that would hurt the boy. During the hour of the sheep Hideyori did manage to wake up again. She leaned forward to catch his words.

“What happened to me?”

“You fell from your horse.”

“I remember. A ghost. The Zinja.” His eyes widened in terror. “I can’t move.”

It was her duty to help him prepare himself, but she could not bring herself to say the words. Then Sametono was beside her.

“Father, you are dying. Ask all the gods and Buddhas to be merciful to you.”

“Pray for me,” Hideyori murmured, fear and anguish in his face. “The whole realm prays for you,” said Sametono.

“I was only protecting myself,” Hideyori whispered. “I have never wanted to die.”

Feeling an urge to comfort him, Taniko said, “I will see that the great Buddha you spoke of is built at Kamakura. It will bring you an abundance of good karma.” While at Heian Kyo, Hideyori had ordered the restoration of the great bronze statue of Buddha at the Todaiji in Nara, which had been burnt by the Takashi. He had remarked to Taniko that he dreamed of erecting an equally large Buddha for Kamakura.

The black eyes fixed on hers. “Have mercy on me, Mother, I’m afraid of them.”

Sametono turned to her, open-mouthed. “What did he mean by that? Mother?”

She sighed. “Your foster father was very attached to his mother.”

That evening the chief priest of the shrine came to visit them. “There are strange stories going about the city, my lady. People are saying that the ghost of Muratomo no Yukio caused the Shogun’s horse to throw him.”

In case Jebu was alive, Taniko shaped her answer to protect him. “I was too upset to see anything clearly. Those who have sympathy for the lieutenant might say his ghost took its vengeance on my husband. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t know.”

Taniko and Sametono fell asleep early that night, exhausted by the long hours of sitting and waiting. Suddenly she felt a hand gently shaking her shoulder. She opened her eyes. Sametono was standing over her.

“He’s gone, Mother.” Tears were trickling down Sametono’s cheeks. Even for such a man as Hideyori, she thought, there was someone to weep.

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