Shike – Day 38 of 306

What a marvellous young man, she thought. When there are men in the world like him and Kiyosi and Jebu, why must I be married to Horigawa? Of course, this one is a bit young, even for me. But those black, penetrating eyes.

She lit a one-hour stick of incense. In an hour Hideyori and his party would be far away. It would be time to dig up old Squint-Eyes, if he were still alive.

Chapter Twelve

Jebu had been placed in charge of the guard over the Retired Emperor, who was installed in the minor palace, one of the residential buildings in the north-west section of the palace grounds. Go-Shirakawa had remained in seclusion except for the previous evening, when there had been a meeting of the Great Council of State. Jebu heard the meeting had not gone well for Domei. In spite of the presence of armed Muratomo samurai, a major councillor had made a speech denouncing Domei as a rebel against the crown. Encouraged, the council had avoided approving Domei’s demands. This delaying tactic could be as disastrous for Domei’s cause as outright rejection.

In addition, Hideyori and his men had returned, and Jebu heard that Horigawa had eluded his pursuers. Jebu felt a pang of disappointment, and realized he had been hoping to learn that Taniko had been made a widow.

Domei’s forces, the thousand samurai of the palace guard, augmented by six thousand Muratomo samurai called in from around the country, continued to drill and to stand guard over the walls surrounding the palace grounds. The White Dragon banner over the main gateway flew just as bravely in the cold winter air. But there was a feeling of tension and uncertainty among the samurai. They needed action, but there was nothing for them to do.

At noon on the third day of Domei’s seizure of the palace, a young samurai came to Jebu, who was meditating on the veranda of the minor palace.

“Captain Domei wants you at the south-centre gateway.”

Domei and other Muratomo leaders were standing on the parapet of the palace wall overlooking Redbird Avenue. Domei appeared tired and discouraged.

“You did well bringing in His Retired Majesty, shiké.”

“I should have prevented the burning of his palace.”

Domei shrugged. “Just another old building. The main thing is, we got Go-Shirakawa and we didn’t lose a man.” He lowered his voice. “I’m speaking to you now because you’re not one of us. You’re not a samurai, nor a member of the Muratomo clan. Perhaps you won’t be as affected by the news. I’ve tried to keep it a secret. This morning Emperor Nijo escaped.”


“Some Takashi infiltrated the palace grounds, disguised the Emperor as a lady-in-waiting, and whisked him out one of the side gates in a carriage. What’s more, Sogamori and Kiyosi have returned to the city. We can expect an attack at any moment. When it comes, I want you to guard my son.”

Jebu knew that Domei had five sons, but he had only met Hideyori. “I presume you mean your youngest son, Hideyori?”

Domei smiled. “I have a son younger than Hideyori. He’s eleven and he’s safe at his mother’s house. I do mean Hideyori. He’s a proud devil. He wants to prove himself better than his older brothers. But he is young to be in the thick of the fighting that will come. The greatest casualties are always among the youngest. Stay close to Hideyori. Try to protect him. But also, try not to let him know you’re doing it.”

Jebu was touched. He remembered Taitaro’s care-worn face the morning after his initiation as a Zinja. Fathers loved their sons, but had to send them into danger.

A cry of alarm came from the near-by Muratomo officers. “Here they come.”

Jebu looked over the wall. The Takashi were advancing. Led by a small group of mounted samurai, the Takashi marched a hundred abreast, their ranks filling the entire breadth of Redbird Avenue. The sun glittered on their armour and the ornamental horns on their helmets. Their hundreds of red banners looked like a sea of poppies. Their war taiko thundered a relentless, triumphant rhythm.

Their leader, riding down the middle of the avenue, wore a helmet with a red-lacquered dragon. His black armour was decorated with gold butterflies and orange-tinted lacings. He rode a chestnut stallion with white mane and tail, and his saddle was inlaid with mother-of-pearl in willow and cherry designs. In his hands he held a long sword curved near the base, the haft decorated with gold and silver mountings.

“That magnificent one,” Domei snarled. “That’s Kiyosi, Sogamori’s son. Look how he’s got himself up. The Takashi are all so vain. We’ll spoil their looks for them today. That sword in his hand, that’s Kogarasu.” He drew his own sword. The winter sun glinted on its long, almost straight blade. “I, too, have my heirloom sword with me Higekiri, the sword that sliced off the arm of the demon of the Rasho Mon. We’ll see whose sword has more power today.”

These samurai deceived themselves into thinking their blades had magical power. “A sword has only as much power as the man behind it,” Jebu said.

Domei shook his head. “Any time a man believes he has power, he has it. This is one of the secrets of warfare, shiké. Go now, and find Hideyori.”

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