Shike – Day 75 of 306

That night, when Moko was through working on the granary, Jebu told him of Yukio’s decision. Moko smiled broadly.

“Long ago, shiké, when we first met, I told you I would go to China with you if need be. Now, even though I have found the joys of love here in Hakata, I am ready to prove that I mean what I promised.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

The ox-drawn carriage rumbled down the rocky road from Mount Hiei. Before it walked ten unarmed samurai, while six more brought up the rear. In the front of the procession walked an ageing banner-man, an honoured veteran of the rebellions of past years, many times wounded. He carried a red Takashi banner. The dragon portrayed on the banner was at rest, indicating that this was not a war flag, but one to be displayed peacefully on family occasions.

In the carriage Atsue, aged nine, blew idle notes on his flute. He and Taniko were returning from his regular music lesson at the temple on Mount Hiei.

“I wish the koto was small enough to carry with us so I could practise on it now,” he said.

“Some of the country folk play a little stringed instrument called the samisen,” said Taniko. “I could get one of those for you.”

“I don’t want anything from country people,” said the boy. “Country people are stupid and ugly and rude. I don’t want to be anything like them.”

“I’m from the country.”

“No one would know it if you didn’t tell them, Mother. You’re a fine lady.”

Smiling, Taniko peered through the curtained window of the palm-leaf carriage. The procession had already entered the great gateway in the north wall of the city. The small group of Imperial police officers guarding the gate saluted the Takashi banner as the veteran carried it through. Now the carriage passed into the shadow of the gateway.

Suddenly, someone shouted at them to stop. The voice was angry, peremptory.

“Remove this carriage from the gate. Make way for the Imperial Regent, His Highness Fujiwara no Motofusa.” The carriage came to a halt.

Taniko looked through the front curtains. The shouting man was wearing rich, orchid-coloured chamberlain’s robes. Four other men in black silk robes, wearing the long, slender swords of the Court in black and gold scabbards, had seized the head of the ox and halted its slow forward pace.

The bannerman, holding his staff as if there were a naginata blade at the end of it instead of a square of red cloth, cried, “This carriage carries Shima no Atsue, son of the esteemed Takashi no Kiyosi, commander-in-chief of the Imperial army, and grandson of the noble Takashi no Sogamori, Imperial chancellor and victor over the Emperor’s rebellious enemies.” The bannerman made it sound as if all those august personages were riding in the carriage with the child Atsue, Taniko thought.

More armed men in black silk surrounded the bannerman. The unarmed Takashi samurai moved closer to the carriage. Looking out the other window, Taniko saw that another carriage, this one three times the height of a man, ornamented with elaborate scrollwork and magnificent black and gold lacquer panelling, and drawn by two white oxen, was moving majestically towards the gate. Taniko’s carriage was right in its path, and one or the other would have to give way.

She knew what was going to happen. It was inevitable. A carriage brawl. Heian Kyo had been notorious for these incidents for hundreds of years. Some of them even took place on the palace grounds.

“The family claims of the occupant of this carriage are ridiculous,” said the chamberlain who had stopped them. “Prince Motofusa is the Regent and a Fujiwara.”

The Fujiwara. So civilized and so old. And now so envious of the rising, vigorous Takashi who were shouldering them aside, who had cut off the heads of two Fujiwara princes during the rebellions and who even had adopted the old Fujiwara tactic of marrying into the Imperial family. The two most powerful men in Heian Kyo these days were Fujiwara no Motofusa, the Regent, with his high office, his wealth and his ancient family, and Takashi no Sogamori, the chancellor, with his high office and tens of thousands of samurai at his back. Perhaps Motofusa had chosen this moment for a test of strength.

“Come here,” Taniko called to the bannerman in the strongest voice she could muster.

The old samurai limped over to Taniko’s carriage. The Regent’s chamberlain squinted at the curtains to see who else was in the carriage with Sogamori’s grandson.

“Under no circumstances are you to back down,” said Taniko firmly. “The Regent holds a higher office than this boy, but we are already in the gateway, and it would be unseemly and dishonourable for Lord Sogamori’s grandson to back out of the gate. Tell the chamberlain that we would yield place if we had arrived at the gate at the same time as His Highness, but under the circumstances we respectfully beg leave to continue through. Tell him that.”

“They’re going to fight us, my lady, no matter what we say.”

“Then the disgrace will be upon them. Remember, the honour of the house of Takashi is involved.”

The bannerman went back to the Fujiwara chamberlain and repeated the message.

“Nonsense!” the chamberlain retorted. He turned to the men holding the oxen. “Push the carriage out of the gateway.”

The four men in black were now joined by others carrying naginatas. At the sight of the deadly blades a chill went through Taniko. The police who had been guarding the gate had long since disappeared. Taniko looked over at Motofusa’s carriage, which was still slowly advancing. There were at least fifty men in Motofusa’s entourage. They were not samurai, but armed courtiers, the remnants of the old army of aristocrats and conscripts that had policed the empire before the rise of the samurai. They didn’t really know how to fight, but they knew how to hate, and the small band of Takashi men they faced was unarmed.

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