Shike – Day 40 of 306

It now appeared that the Muratomo had the Takashi on the run. The southern half of the inner palace compound was swept clear of Takashi, and the pivoting advance of the Muratomo became a rush as the Takashi began a headlong retreat.

A flash of gleaming red caught Jebu’s eye. It was the dragon on Kiyosi’s helmet. Waving his sword, the Takashi leader was calling his men to fall back before the onrushing Muratomo. He was leading the retreat.

But a Takashi retreat made no sense. Kiyosi should be rallying his warriors to make a stand. The Takashi outnumbered the Muratomo three to one. They had managed to overwhelm the outer defences. They had only to keep on and they would grind the Muratomo down. But so rapidly did the Takashi fall back that there was no time to pin them against the Ceremonial Hall, the aim of Domei’s counter-attack. Instead, the fleeing Takashi and the charging Muratomo circled the Cherry Tree a second time, swirling like a whirlwind.

And now Kiyosi’s red helmet and dazzling sword could be seen leading the Takashi out the gate they had broken in through. A cheer went up from the Muratomo as they rushed out of the palace grounds in pursuit of their foe.

“Stop!” Jebu called. “Stop! Close the gate and hold the palace.” But the samurai flooded past Jebu as if he were just another ornamental tree on the palace grounds. The Muratomo vanguard, led by Domei’s white plume, was already far down Redbird Avenue. Jebu and a handful of Muratomo samurai remained behind. In a moment the walled park was nearly empty.

A strange silence fell. The screams and shouts and clatter of battle faded in the distance. All that remained, besides Jebu and the few samurai, were hundreds of armoured bodies scattered over the white gravel of the outer grounds and the inner compound. Here and there lay a severed head, arm or leg, a dark lump of leather-wrapped flesh surrounded by a puddle of blood. Blood was everywhere, in pools, splashes and streams, as if the palace grounds were white paper on which a giant calligrapher had been writing with red ink. The white of the Muratomo and the red of the Takashi, thought Jebu. Together they have inscribed their poem of war on the most sacred ground of Sunrise Land.

The realm would never be the same again. This palace had been built four hundred years ago by Kammu, the ancestor of the Takashi. Since then it had been the centre of harmony and serenity for the whole empire. Now it was splashed with blood and littered with mutilated bodies. The Emperor would undoutedly survive these great changes that were shaking the land, but he would not govern, nor would his ministers. Whoever governed in the future would govern with the sword.

Men screamed for help, other men begged for a quick death, while some groaned in half-consciousness. The few Muratomo samurai who had stayed behind walked about identifying their dead comrades and trying to help the wounded. Others systematically went from one wounded Takashi to the next, slitting throats, spilling more blood on the white stones. Some performed the same service as a mercy for the badly injured Muratomo. Jebu looked down at his armour, dappled with blood.

Young Hideyori came up to him, wiping his sword clean with a white cloth. “We had better get these men together, shiké. The Takashi will be upon us at any moment.”

“You saw that? Good, Hideyori-san. You’ll make a good general.”

Hideyori smiled, his eyes as remote and cold as ever. “You saw it and I saw it, but my father didn’t see it. My father—” He broke off, shaking his head.

“There’ll be too many of them for us to fight,” said Jebu.

“We can hold the inner compound. Or at least the Ceremonial Hall.”

“Yes, and the last of us to die can set fire to it.”

“Why not?”

“Nonsense. I’m going to deliver you to your father alive.”

“A foolish promise, impossible to keep.”

At that moment the lookout on the inner wall gave a long, shrill cry of alarm, and the storm was upon them again. There was no stopping the Takashi who swarmed up their scaling ladders, planted their blood-red flags on the parapets, and dropped from the walls to the ground like a swarm of beetles falling upon a mulberry tree.

“This way,” Jebu called. Followed by about fifty Muratomo samurai, he and Hideyori burst through the unguarded gateway leading to the northern part of the palace grounds. Takashi samurai raced after them.

Half the Muratomo samurai, forced to act without orders, stopped, turned and formed a defensive line to hold back the Takashi. Jebu could see Kiyosi’s dragon-crowned helmet as it passed through the gateway through which they had just escaped. A mass of Takashi fell upon the Muratomo line. Then Jebu could see no more.

They ran past the Imperial residential buildings surrounding the little park in the north-west section of the grounds. A samurai beside Jebu took an arrow in the back and fell into the ornamental pool. Frightened maidservants and ladies-in-waiting peered out at them. Some were supporters of the Muratomo and called out frantic questions, which Jebu and the samurai ignored.

Beyond the residential buildings Jebu saw a stable. There was no time to saddle the horses. Panting, their breath steaming, the men threw themselves on the animals’ bare backs. There were only a dozen horses. Those samurai who were left without horses turned and lined up to hold off pursuers.

They rode for the north-west gateway in the outer wall. A Takashi humming-bulb arrow shot past Jebu’s head with a piercing whistle. Jebu decided that if the Takashi caught up with them he would turn and fight them at the gate, giving Hideyori time to escape.

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