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Authors: Richard Parks

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BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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“Well, primarily—this image of Princess Teiko didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. Her desires? Her reasons for attachment to this world? What part of this was a revelation to you?”

“I once thought my obligation to both Princess Teiko and her son would end when he ascended the throne,” I said. “Clearly not.”

“Did you really?” Kenji asked. “Knowing the Fujiwara’s only real loyalty is to themselves? Was that what you believed, even before Princess Teiko’s manifestation at the bridge? Honestly?” I think my face reddened then, because Kenji didn’t wait for an answer. “That’s what I thought,” he said.

“She said she might be trapped on this earth forever, if I don’t help her.”

“And did you not already believe as much yourself? Honestly, Lord Yamada. As a priest, I know dreams are sometimes prophetic, and sometimes dreams are a portal to allow the visitation of spirits. But sometimes, dreams are no more than a way of talking to ourselves in a manner where we will finally listen. I do not pretend to know which is the case here, and neither should you.”

“I believe Teiko appeared to me,” I said because it was the truth. Or perhaps my truth.

Kenji grunted. “Then I will say no more on the subject. Whether she did or not, the situation we are in has not changed.”

I had no argument. “How far is this
kofun
?” I asked, changing the subject.

“If I remember right, we are nearly there.”

Kenji had hardly finished speaking when the tumulus came into view. It sat on a broad flat hillock, a smaller mound on a greater one. The earth around the stones had eroded so some of them were visible; the ones in sight were gigantic. Three grown men with arms outstretched wouldn’t have been able to measure the least of them.

“The Ishibutai Kofun,” Kenji said.

There was an approach of flat stones leading toward an entrance that appeared like a gaping maw in the earth. Princess Tagako’s carriage was arranged so she had a good view of it, though of course we came no closer to avoid the risk of ritual impurity, which was something Princess Tagako especially could not afford. A tomb of ancient distinction was still a tomb, and not a place for the living. While we waited, a servant brought word that Princess Tagako wished to speak to me. I dismounted and approached her carriage. Through the shutter I could see a few flashes of color but not her face.

“What do you think of it? The
kofun
, I mean.”

“It is . . . impressive.”

“It is also a reminder, is it not?”

“Life is fleeting.”

She laughed and after a few moments she spoke again. “Yes, that. But there’s more. Do you not know the history of this place?” I admitted my lack of knowledge, and she continued, “Where we are now, in this flat area before the
kofun
, is rumored to have once been the mansion of a very powerful man named Soga no Umako, back when Asuka was the home to the emperors. Have you heard the name?”

I frowned. “Once again, I must confess that I have not.”

“I am not surprised. It was a long time ago, but those of the royal line, even as distantly as myself, know the story. Hundreds of years ago, the Soga were to the emperors what the Fujiwara are now. What remains of them today, save for this big pile of stones? Nothing, Lord Yamada. Nothing at all.”

“That is the real reason you wanted to come here,” I said.

“I have heard of this place since I was a child, and it is the reminder I spoke of: What seems impossible to overcome will be overcome. What seems unchangeable, will change. That is the nature of all things. One day the Fujiwara will follow the path of the Soga clan, and their sum and total will be the stones of a forgotten tomb. Still, I am of Fujiwara blood—if distantly—as are most of the royal line. Even Princess Teiko had a Fujiwara mother. Yet the Fujiwara only care about empresses in the paternal line. They make us all family and then forget we are so. In time, I believe this will be their downfall.”

I smiled. “Have you seen what you came to see?”

“I have, and I know that time is short. I am ready to depart.”

We left Soga no Umako’s tomb and met with the rest of our procession at the appointed place. When we crossed the barrier into Kawachi province, we were met with an additional escort of thirty mounted archers sent by the provincial governor. Morofusa and Akimasa met with the Kawachi
bushi
’s
shōshō
and then reported to me.

“Their orders are to accompany us to Heijo-kyo. Since this is their territory, I propose we put them in the vanguard, well ahead of us. We will cover the center, flanks and rear, if that meets your approval?”

This was Morofusa’s domain, not mine, so naturally I agreed, but before he left, I took him aside. “Is there something else?”

“Only that their commander strikes me as somewhat nervous, and it worries me. Perhaps they expect trouble, but these are Montoku Genji
bushi
and well respected. I would see for myself how well they deal with trouble.”

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with Morofusa’s explanation, as I had the feeling there was something he wasn’t telling me, but I had no reason to object. Fortunately, there was no trouble. The Montoku Genji accompanied us on to our first overnight stop in Kawachi and then on to what had been Heijo-kyo, the old capital at Nara. There they departed to secure the area of the temple where we would be quartered that evening. I wasn’t sorry to see them go. By my standards, our numbers were bloated enough, and I was afraid they might slow us down. The closest we would come to Kyoto on this leg of the journey was Uji, north of Nara, before we turned southeast to Osaka Bay for Princess Tagako’s final ceremony as high priestess. Only then would we be able to return to the Capital.

We were shown the site of the old palace upon our arrival at Heijo-kyo. There was nothing left of its vermillion pillars and green tiled roofs, as the old accounts described it. The grounds where once emperors had made decrees and the court carried out its intrigues had found far more practical use as farmland, for what is a palace without an emperor? What hadn’t been moved for the creation of Heian-kyo was long since scavenged, rotted and fallen away, or burned down.

What remained of Nara’s time as capital city were nine great temples, still in use, but all had seen better days. Our quarters were, in my estimation, located in the worst of them. The lodgings had been cleaned and prepared as well as possible for our arrival, but were clearly on their way to following the example of the ancient palace. Still, it was large enough to house all of us, since even the remaining priests had homes in the town rather than living within their own walls. Morofusa and Akimasa arranged their men around the walls, adding more guards to those areas where time and neglect had breached them. Even with the addition of the governor’s men, they were stretched thin to cover everything.

While Princess Tagako received official visitors in the temple’s lecture hall, Kenji began his own patrol, and I went with him.

“I’m grateful for the company,” Kenji said. “This place has me concerned.”

I shared Kenji’s worry. In most cases his inspections were simply out of habit and prudent precaution, but this place was different. The temple had been all but abandoned; spirits and monsters and creatures of all sorts were drawn to such places.

“Have you sensed anything yet?”

“Nothing definite, but the feeling in this direction makes me uneasy.”

We were traveling along the west wing of the temple. On the outside were several moldering outbuildings, but Kenji felt drawn along one corridor. Daylight was failing, and Kenji lit his lantern. I had my
tachi
with me; indeed, I had seldom been without it since our journey began. Yet here in the temple it was close quarters, and the length of the blade made its use impractical. I also carried a
kodachi
in my sash, but I didn’t believe the shorter blade could be as effective if we really ran into trouble, and I said as much to Kenji.

“Let me see your dagger,” he said.

Calling a
kodachi
a dagger was rather like calling a spear a splinter, but I held it out to him hilt first. He put his lantern down and drew a slip of paper from within his robe. He closed his eyes and muttered a few words I didn’t understand, then touched the paper to my blade. The paper disappeared in a wisp of smoke, and for a moment, the blade of my
kodachi
glowed red.

“Here,” Kenji said as he handed the weapon back to me and recovered his lantern. “Anything more solid than an actual ghost, that blade will cut, and I’ll wager even a ghost wouldn’t enjoy it.”

“I’ve never seen you use that technique before,” I said. “There were times when we could have used it.”

“I only discovered it in an idle moment after I moved into my temple at Kamakura. I believe it will work, but it is untried, for the obvious reason that I’ve had no chance to test it these last three years. Indeed, I didn’t think I’d ever need to try it at all. I’m sorry to say I might be wrong. Listen!”

I did. There was a very faint and intermittent sound coming from further down the corridor. “It sounds like an animal whine.”

“I hope it is indeed an animal,” Kenji said. “Let’s go.”

We had only taken a few steps when Kenji stopped again. “Do you feel that?”

I did. The atmosphere in the corridor suddenly seemed thick and the light dimmer, even though I knew the sun was still above the horizon. “There’s something ahead. Something powerful.”

“I think you should draw your dagger,” he said. “I’m counting on you to use it if need be.”

“Fine, but don’t tell Morofusa.”

“No need.”

I almost jumped out of my sandals. Morofusa stood behind us looking grim, and I swear I had heard nothing.

“By all the gods, Morofusa—I’ve known ghosts that didn’t move as quietly as you.”

He sighed. “You promised, Lord Yamada.”

“I did. To not wander off, and I have not done so—we are still within the scope of your guards. To not risk myself unnecessarily, but I believe, for the safety of Princess Tagako and all of us, this is necessary.”

“A distinction possibly without a difference,” he said. “What are we hunting?”

“As of yet we don’t know. Possibly nothing, but I would not depend on that. Let us go on,” Kenji said.

Morofusa followed us, and I had to admit that, once I had gotten over my initial shock, I was glad he had found me. Two blades would definitely be better than one, if something as dangerous as I feared really was waiting for us.

“Speaking of hunting, Morofusa-san, may I see your dagger?” Kenji asked.

After a brief hesitation, Morofusa turned his own
kodachi
over to Kenji, who gave it the same blessing he had given mine. “Just in case,” he said, returning the blade. Morofusa handled it as if he were afraid it would burst into flame at any moment. I barely hid a smile, but only just. We resumed our progress down the corridor. Ahead we saw a patch of light, and then immediately heard a low growl.

“That sounded a bit like a dog,” Kenji said. “Wouldn’t you agree, Lord Yamada?”

I sighed. “Exactly like a dog. So far, fortune has not smiled upon us. Morofusa-san, please draw your
kodachi
 . . . and don’t worry. It won’t bite you. I can’t say the same for what lies ahead.”

“Gentlemen, I personally checked the outside of this walkway not very long ago. This opens into a small pavilion, and there was nothing there.”

“There is now,” Kenji said. “I hope I’m wrong about what it is.”

“I don’t think you are,” I said. “Pity.”

Morofusa stopped us. “As I said, that is an open pavilion ahead. If a creature of malice is there now, we won’t be able to cover its retreat, confined here as we are. It could easily elude us.”

“What do you suggest?” I asked.

“Yoshitsune and Hideki are posted to a gate near here. Let me fetch them to block the creature’s path to the hall before we try to confront it.”

Morofusa’s plan showed good sense. “Do so, but hurry, else it will be on the move without waiting for us.”

Instead of running back to the chamber where the corridor began, he simply found a sprung piece of framing on the wall itself and pushed his way through. In a very short time he had returned, hardly winded.

“They will be ready,” he said. “And you are correct—I saw a shadow seated in the pavilion. I couldn’t tell what it was.”

“Then let us hope I’ve selected the correct ward. Be on guard, both of you,” Kenji said, and we pushed forward into the pavilion.

The creature sat there like a courtier taking in a breeze. It was wearing full court dress, including a very stylish
boushi.
The only thing out of place was that it had the head of a very large dog. Kenji held his staff in front of himself like a shield.


Inugami!

I had hoped we were wrong, but that was a foolish hope. In an instant the creature abandoned all pretense of humanity. It lifted its muzzle skyward and
howled.
Its clothing fell away as if it had been shredded, leaving only a pile of torn cloth. Now it stood on four thickly muscled legs, its eyes glowing like coals, and the rumble of its growl made my knees shake.

Two more men won’t be enough—

The creature bolted toward the courtyard. Yoshitsune was there and swung a hard blow at the creature’s head, but the blade didn’t bite, and in an instant the beast was on top of him, slavering for his throat. Morofusa and I had both gone after the creature, but we were too slow. The only thing that saved the man from having his throat torn out was Hideki, who struck the creature in the side with his spear. Again the weapon did not cut, but the blow did throw the
inugami
off balance for a second, and Morofusa, who was a shade faster than I was, leaped on its back and drove his
kodachi
into the beast’s throat. For a moment I thought his blade had done its work, but then the creature shook itself like a dog shedding water, and Morofusa went flying off to land heavily several feet away.

“Lord Yamada! Hurry!” Kenji shouted. I managed to reach the creature, and drove my blessed
kodachi
deep into its side near the shoulder. Howling in pain, the
inugami
turned its attention to me, knocking me down like a cloth doll and lunging for my throat. I reached out blindly and my left hand closed on the hilt of Morofusa’s blade. I heard Hideki’s spear twice strike the creature without any effect. Holding onto Morofusa’s
kodachi
with all my strength was the only thing keeping me alive—for the moment.

BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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