Shike – Day 87 of 306

The Takashi headquarters was across the Kamo River, east of the original limits of Heian Kyo, outside the city’s walls. The land had been given to Sogamori’s grandfather after a victory over pirates on the Inland Sea. In those days the Takashi estate was out in the countryside. Over the years, with each new acquisition of power and wealth, the stronghold grew, as a coral reef rises out of the sea. At the same time the capital spread eastwards, and now the Rokuhara was surrounded by innumerable lesser buildings, like a black rock in a swiftly moving current.

It was palace, fortress, barracks and prison all in one. Between the samurai quartered within its walls and those who lived near by with families and retainers of their own, the Takashi could call up ten thousand warriors at a moment’s notice.

Even after crossing the moat and passing through the fortified western gate, Ryuichi travelled a long time through a labyrinth of inner walls before he finally came to the hall where Sogamori awaited him. Ryuichi dismounted and dismissed his outriders, who looked thoroughly cowed now that they were in the Takashi stronghold. A group of Sogamori’s red-robed youths eyed Ryuichi’s party with a threatening casualness.

Approached by two Takashi samurai, Ryuichi tried to appear calm and superior, a difficult feat for a sweating, trembling fat man. Despite their deferential manner, the hard-faced warriors frightened him. The Shima were supposedly samurai themselves, but Ryuichi was more at home with ink, brush and account books than with bow and sword. He allowed the guards to lead him to Sogamori.

The chieftain of the Takashi clan, dressed in a billowing white silk robe, sat on a raised platform, a naked sword in his lap. His round skull was completely shaved; he had entered the priesthood several years earlier after a nearly fatal illness. Behind him, brightly lit by oil lamps, hung an enormous gold banner bearing an angry Red Dragon, its eyes blazing, claws extended, wings flapping, the scaly body, coil upon coil, seeming about to leap out of golden silk and destroy all in the room.

Ryuichi was grateful for the excuse to fall on his knees and press his forehead to the cedar floor. He was shaking so violently he felt he could no longer stand. Why did Sogamori have a sword in his lap? Was it for him?

“You are welcome here, Shima no Ryuichi,” said Sogamori in his grating voice. Ryuichi looked up. The lines of Sogamori’s broad face were deep and shadowed. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. The man must have been weeping for days, Ryuichi thought. There were tears glistening on Sogamori’s brown cheeks even now.

Below the platform, to Sogamori’s right and left, sat the men of his family. The place just below and to the left, where Kiyosi had always sat, was occupied by Sogamori’s second son, Notaro, his puffy, white-powdered features drooping with a faint boredom. Beside Notaro sat the third son, Tadanori, a famous dandy and poet, but not known to be good at much else. Sogamori’s other sons by his principal wife and his other wives sat facing each other in two rows leading up to the platform. Dullards, weaklings, and fops, thought Ryuichi. Other nobles, favourites of Sogamori, sat around the room. With surprise, Ryuichi recognized Prince Sasaki no Horigawa, smiling and gently fanning himself.

Sogamori took a sheet of paper from his sleeve. “We have been reading my son’s poems, Ryuichi-san. This is the last one he wrote, aboard ship on his way to Kyushu.

The shadow of the sail is my palace,
These cedar planks my bed,
My host, a seagull.

“Exquisite,” Ryuichi whispered, dry-mouthed. Sogamori sighed and wiped his face with his sleeve. In the silence Ryuichi thought how Taniko would love to have one of Kiyosi’s poems. But it was obvious Taniko had no friends here. Horigawa waved his fan before his face and smiled his secretive smile at Ryuichi.

Sogamori raised the sword, holding it by its gold and silver-mounted hilt. The blade glistened in the lamplight. It was sharply curved and double-edged for more than half its length.

“His sword,” said Sogamori. “Kogarasu. He didn’t want to risk losing it at sea, so he left it behind. If he had worn it, it would have gone down with him to the bottom of Hakata Bay. Kogarasu once belonged to our ancestor, Emperor Kammu, who received it from the priestess of the Grand Isle Shrine. I gave it to my son when he cut his hair and tied it in the topknot.”

Ryuichi bowed his head. “The grief of your house is the grief of my house.”

A silence fell. Sogamori studied Kogarasu, turning the sword this way and that to catch the light on its shadowy temper lines. Wrapping his white silk sleeve around his hand, he polished the blade lovingly. Gently, as if cradling a sleeping baby, he laid the sword in his lap.

“I am told that your own son, Munetoki, is well and is on his way home to you,” said Sogamori softly. “I hear he performed bravely in the battle at Hakata Bay. The joy of your house is the joy of my house.”

Was there irony in Sogamori’s tone? “A thousand years would not be enough time for me to express my gratitude to the chancellor for noticing my son,” said Ryuichi, bowing deeply.

“Can the Shima not control their women?” Sogamori whispered harshly. At the sudden change of tone Ryuichi’s innards froze with terror.

“Your miserable servant begs forgiveness if we have offended,” he mumbled, bowing his head.

“If you have offended?” Sogamori growled. “You should be ashamed to show your face before me, Ryuichi. You should have thrown yourself into the Kamo on the way here.”

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