Shike – Day 6 of 306

Taitaro recounted the story. The Emperors of long ago had had many wives and many sons. The Imperial family had grown so large that its support became an intolerable burden on the national treasury. It was decided to lop off some of the branches, give them new names and some land, and let them fend for themselves. The descendants of Emperor Kammu—he who built the capital at Heian Kyo—were called the Takashi. They took as their symbol the Red Dragon. The descendants of Emperor Seiwa were known as the Muratomo, and their crest was the White Dragon.

No longer dependent on the throne, the newly created families lost the gentle, refined ways of the Imperial Court and became tough and self-reliant. They took up arms to defend their lands against frontier barbarians and against other landowners who coveted their holdings. They armed their servants, who became known as samurai.

Meanwhile the Imperial army had dwindled to a few troops of exquisitely caparisoned courtiers who had neither the will nor the ability to wage war. And so, when there was hard fighting to be done, when great landowners rebelled against the throne, when the hairy Ainu attacked in the north, when pirates made the Inland Sea impassable, the Son of Heaven would call for help from his cousins, the Takashi and the Muratomo. The armed clans became known as the teeth and claws of the crown, and their samurai armies grew larger. Inevitably the two families became rivals, trying to outdo each other in feats of glory and conquest.

Inevitably, too, they became involved in the intrigues around the Emperor. There had always been factions jockeying for power around the throne, and those who failed at political manoeuvring sometimes sought to win through force, with the help of the samurai. As a matter of course, whichever side the Muratomo took, the Takashi would support the opposing faction.

The competition between the Takashi and the Muratomo had turned into a blood feud four years earlier, when the Emperor’s brother had raised a rebellion, claiming the throne for himself. The chieftain of the Muratomo clan came out in support of the pretender, setting up a stronghold in a palace in Heian Kyo and sending out a call for reinforcements.

One prominent member of the Muratomo family remained loyal to the incumbent Son of Heaven. This was Domei, captain of the palace guard. He had taken an oath to protect the Emperor, and he believed the rebel brother’s claim to be false. Domei was the son of the Muratomo clan chieftain, so his decision put him in the agonizing position of fighting against his own father.

The Takashi also sided with the Emperor. The chieftain of the Takashi was Sogamori, a wily, bloodthirsty and ambitious warrior. Seeing that most of the Muratomo were backing the pretender, Sogamori saw his chance to ruin the rival clan by making war on them. Thus, the unhappy Captain Domei found himself fighting alongside the enemies of his clan.

Domei was a renowned and audacious fighter. In spite of his difficult situation he led the palace guard and his temporary Takashi allies in a night attack on the rebel stronghold. He burned it to the ground and captured his father.

The victorious Emperor now had to decide what to do with the leaders of the uprising. Since the coming of the Buddha’s gentle way to the Sacred Islands, centuries ago, there had been very few executions. Those rebels who had survived the perils of battle might expect, in the normal course of events, no worse punishment than exile. The death penalty was meted out only to commoners, and then only when they were found guilty of murder or major theft. Sogamori now shocked the capital by calling for the execution of all the captured rebel leaders.

Sogamori had an ally close to the throne, Prince Sasaki no Horigawa, an Imperial adviser. Prince Horigawa pressed the demand for the death penalty in the Emperor’s council. Finally the Son of Heaven decreed over seventy executions. Going beyond that, he commanded Domei to behead his own father, the Muratomo clan chieftain.

Ultimately, another Muratomo relative volunteered to perform the execution, then killed himself by cutting his stomach open.

“What a painful death that must have been,” Jebu said. “Why would anyone deliberately do that to himself?”

“It is a new practice among the samurai,” said Taitaro. “They kill themselves to expunge stains on their honour. But they don’t want it to be said that they committed suicide from want of courage, so they inflict on themselves the most excruciating death imaginable.”

Instead of rewarding Domei for his loyalty to him, the Son of Heaven had ignored him ever since, resenting Domei’s failure to execute his father. The Takashi, on the other hand, enjoyed the Emperor’s favour and were raised to new heights. Sogamori, the Takashi leader, became Minister of the Left, one of the Emperor’s chief councillors.

Domei, still captain of the palace guard, was now chieftain of the Muratomo clan. He seethed with hatred for those who had engineered his father’s death and his own disappointment. And all over the country small battles between supporters of the Takashi and Muratomo would break out at the slightest provocation.

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