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Authors: Richard Parks

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BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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Even so, I knew this, while true, was only part of the explanation. I didn’t bother to deny the rest of it.

“Kenji,” I said aloud, knowing of course he could not hear me, “I’m bored.”

Only later did it occur to me this was perhaps not the wisest sentiment to express within earshot of the gods at Hachimangu, but by then of course it was too late. The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I recognized an older man hurrying through the crowd. It was Ichiro, my steward. He was in his late fifties and not accustomed to a great deal of physical exertion; it was clear he had been running. It was also very clear he was looking for me; he hurried up as soon as he spotted me by the lantern.

“L-Lord Yamada,” he said, and that was all for a few moments as he leaned over and tried to catch up to his breath.

“Ichiro-san, what’s wrong?”

“You have a visitor, my lord.”

I frowned. Such a thing would not usually call for such urgency. The last three years had taught me just how often a man with a twenty thousand
koku
estate could expect visitors. It was often necessary to receive them with all hospitality and play the part of the head of the small but newly prominent Yamada clan, but only now and then were these visitation any more than social calls, and those would be arranged in advance. I trusted Ichiro to know the difference.

“Who?”

Ichiro looked unhappy. “A lady and her escort. She wouldn’t give her name.”

That my visitor wouldn’t give a name wasn’t unusual—most noblewomen were rather protective of their identities outside their most intimate circles, for fear of gossip and scandal. But then a noblewoman would have a serious reason for such a visit in the first place, and especially with someone they presumably did not know.

“Did she say anything at all?”

“She asked me to find you. Please forgive me, my lord, but it . . . I can’t quite explain how her presence affected me, only when she asked me to come and find you, it seemed more like a command than a request, and I had the distinct feeling it would be wise to do as she said.”

Stranger and yet more strange. “Ah. Did she say anything else?”

“Yes, my lord. She told me to ask if you remembered the moon over Yahiko Temple.”

One mystery was a mystery no longer. I understood immediately who my visitor was. What I did not understand was why Lady Kuzunoha would travel all the way east from Settsu province to Kamakura to see me. This would not be a trivial excursion, even for one of her abilities.

“Your instincts serve you well, Ichiro-san. Our visitor is not someone to be trifled with or kept waiting. Lead on.”

“She did convey the impression of a woman who was used to having her way.”

“No doubt, though to be precise she’s a fox demon. She only looks like a human woman when she chooses to do so.”

Ichiro froze between one step and the next, and for a moment I thought he was about to topple over. “Did you say ‘fox demon’?”

What I said then almost felt like a lie, or perhaps almost the truth, which was pretty close to the same thing. Either way, where Lady Kuzunoha was concerned, our long relationship was not nearly so simple as I made it out to be.

I almost smiled. “I did. Though do not worry—she’s an old friend.”

“It is good to see you again,” I said, “whatever the reason might be.”

“And you, Lord Yamada. As for the reason, I promise to enlighten you—but not just yet.”

I had not seen Lady Kuzunoha in three years, since the Abe rebellion had been crushed in Mutsu province. I knew her appearance, while real and very handsome, was not her true self. Even so, it was the form she chose to appear in most often in our dealings with each other, and so she looked very familiar to me, for she had not changed in the slightest. We were in the audience hall, now empty save for the two of us. It was all very much against protocol and proper decorum for a noblewoman to be alone in the company of a man not her husband or father, but Lady Kuzunoha insisted and that was the end of it. I asked Ichiro to clear the hall of my retainers, and once they were gone, at a word from Kuzunoha her five rather formidable
bushi
escort changed into little tongues of fox-fire and then vanished. I had to express my admiration.

“A remarkable illusion.”

She smiled then. She had beautiful teeth, but not nearly as impressive as her real ones when she was in her true fox-demon form. I had seen them a few times and counted myself fortunate I had not had them turned against me, though on more than one occasion it had been a near thing.

“Illusion has its uses. While, as you understand, I have no need of an escort, a lady who appears as I do would be expected to have such a thing. I’d be far more conspicuous traveling in this form otherwise.”

“I’m grateful you did so. As regal as your true form is, I think Ichiro would have died of fright.”

Lady Kuzunoha appeared to give the notion some thought. “I don’t think so,” she said finally. “He’s stronger than he lets others see. I suppose this is why you accepted his service.”

I grunted. “When I met him, he was a displaced ex-farmer attempting to steal food from one of my storehouses. Under the law I should have executed him, but I made the mistake of speaking with him first, and so I realized he could be more useful to me with his head attached. So. I know you didn’t travel all this way from Shinoda Forest to discuss my household. Nor, pleased as I am to see you again, do I think this strictly a social call.”

“No,” she said. “I did not and it is not. Yet . . . forgive me, but this is proving more difficult than I expected.”

While it was Lady Kuzunoha’s gift to appear fully human and move in any human circle she chose, not even excluding the emperor’s court, she normally was far more blunt and direct in her dealings with me than one would expect of a lady so familiar with the fine details of protocol and refinement. Yet her hesitation at stating the reason for her visit worried me. It simply was not like her.

“Perhaps you should tell me what’s troubling you,” I said.

“Rather it is I who do not wish to trouble you, but I am on a mission and there are things of importance to discuss. May I start by asking you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“Did you know Crown Prince Takahito’s second official wife, Shigeko, was a Fujiwara?”

I’m not sure what I expected her question to be, but that was not one I’d considered. “Of course I knew. Why do you ask?”

She ignored the question. “And that another of the crown prince’s consorts, Akiko, is also a Fujiwara?”

I frowned. “I did know, and once more I must ask: why?”

Again she ignored the question, and instead asked me another. She looked at me intently. “Did you approve?”

Kuznoha’s questions were heading in a direction I didn’t want to travel. “Takahito is an imperial prince and the heir to the throne. Choosing a wife or official consort therefore is a matter of state, done with the advice and consent of his councilors. It is not for me to approve or disapprove.”

She dismissed my statement. “I’m not asking for you to gainsay the prince or those who advise him. I’m asking your opinion.”

This was dangerous ground to say the least. I didn’t know the extent of Lady Kuzunoha’s knowledge of either imperial politics or my involvement in them, directly or otherwise. Yet I knew it was safe to assume she knew more than one would expect. “As a personal, rainy day musing?”

“It’s not raining, Lord Yamada. Not yet.”

There was nothing for it but to give her what she wanted. I had often found it thus in my dealings with Lady Kuzunoha.

“His primary wife, Princess Kaoruko, is the daughter of an emperor and, so, not a Fujiwara in the paternal line. Shigeko, as I’m sure you know, died without producing an heir. The fact his fourth consort is another Fujiwara defangs some elements of the opposition by giving them a prince of direct Fujiwara descent in the maternal line. That Takahito’s third consort, Motoko, is a Minamoto and has also produced a prince likely does not concern them. Yet Takahito’s declared heir is his oldest son by Kaoruko, Prince Sadahito. This is unlikely to change.”

She smiled again. I was starting to dread her smile. “So you have been paying attention, as I expected. Now then, you’re saying you understand the logic of it. That’s not the same thing as approving, Lord Yamada.”

“No, it isn’t,” I admitted. “I know those . . . closest to Takahito have the sole intent of making certain he is named emperor and are less concerned with what happens afterwards—”

“By ‘closest,’ you mean Prince Kanemore, who is his uncle and your friend.”

I did, but she was taking care to make me understand she knew it, too.

“For what little it may be worth, I did mourn Shigeko’s death, as I know Takahito was genuinely fond of her. I think it was a miscalculation to give the Fujiwara any opening at all. I know from sad experience how far they will go to maintain their prestige and power. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“The truth? Yes. Now I must tell you your fears may have some basis. You will also recall, I trust, the Empress Dowager Sadako formally adopted Takahito some years ago, out of the love she bore for his mother, Princess Teiko. It was seen as a way to strengthen his claim, and now so much time has passed few people remember she is not Takahito’s birth mother. Still, it is an important point. Sadako is likewise not of paternal Fujiwara descent, but as Takahito’s adoptive mother there was no advantage to attacking her reputation as was tried with Princess Teiko. We need not rehash those events, I trust?”

I frowned. “Certainly not. Please go on.”

“Empress Sadako was untouchable. You had made Princess Teiko untouchable, and thus so was Takahito. The same is not true of Princess Kaoruko.”

“They wouldn’t . . . ” I didn’t even bother to finish. Of course they would. “At present, Prince Sadahito is Takahito’s only heir. What would be gained?”

“If Princess Kaoruko could be compromised in some way, then Sadahito could be removed from the succession. As there are—yet—no other declared heirs, either of Fujiwara descent or not, then this would leave Takahito’s half-brother, Norihira. Who is, as you well know, born of a Fujiwara mother.”

I had almost forgotten about Prince Norihira. Not a very promising man, according to Prince Kanemore. Even a bit of a dolt. But he did have the correct lineage, and as the son of a Fujiwara mother, he had been raised in a Fujiwara household and was firmly within their sphere of influence. His ascension had been the Fujiwara’s desire all along.

“Does Prince Kanemore know what they have planned?”

She looked at me. “I never said Prince Kanemore sent me.”

It was my turn to smile. “No need. Your interest in court intrigue only applies to those which might affect Lord Abe no Yasuna, and the succession clearly does not. You did say you were on a mission, but if it was not to further your own interests, then it was on behalf of someone else. Teiko’s brother was the only interested party with connections to both of us. I don’t know how he persuaded you to undertake this errand for him, but clearly he needed someone he could trust, who could travel quickly, and someone I, in turn, would trust. That the solution in both those cases was a fox demon is an irony not lost on me. Now please answer my question.”

“If so, he did not relate it to me.” Lady Kuzunoha looked thoughtful. “Perhaps you both are too quick to give confidence to one such as myself. You said it yourself—I am a demon.”

“I’ve met many demons in my time, Kuzunoha-hime. Many were evil. Some were just trying to live their lives. I could say the same for many human beings . . . in both instances. If our trust is misplaced, then you will have chosen to cast it away for your own reasons, not because you haven’t earned it.”

“That almost sounded like a compliment,” she said.

“Then I should have tried harder.”

She laughed then, placing her sleeve delicately across her mouth as noblewomen did. “Lord Yamada, you are correct of course. I am here on behalf of Prince Kanemore. He’s worried, but trust me or not, I know he hasn’t told me everything. Please understand—I do not blame him. It was wise to relay no more information than would be sufficient to impress upon you the seriousness of the situation. However . . . ” She hesitated, then continued. “I do know one thing he did not tell me, though I do not think this can be hidden for much longer.”

“What is it?”

“Emperor Go-Reizei’s health is failing. He may not live out the year.”

“Does Prince Kanemore know this?”

“Of course he does, and so I think you should understand his urgency. Takahito-tenno’s succession may or may not be imminent, but his line and legacy is in danger either way. So. What will you do?”

I didn’t even have to think about it.

“What he knows I will do, and the only thing I
can
do. I will go to Kyoto.”

Lady Kuzunoha sighed. “Yes, but first you must go to the Grand Shrine at Ise.”

I must have looked as confused as I felt, but Lady Kuzunoha didn’t offer any explanation. After a moment I had to ask the question. “I must? Why?”

Her expression didn’t flicker. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

CHAPTER TWO

“Give this to my son upon his arrival from Mino,” I said, handing the scroll to Ichiro. “He has the governance of my estate until I return, and until
he
returns, I charge you to keep things in order.”

Ichiro bowed as he received the scroll. “Of course, my lord, but as for your return, may I inquire as to when this might be? Taro-sama will certainly want to know.”

“No doubt, but the truth is I do not know. When my business at the Capital is concluded. That is all I can say.”

While I knew the road from Kamakura to the Capital very well, it still felt strange to be traveling on horseback now, at the head of a retinue of twenty
bushi
and attendants. While my experiences at the end of the war in Mutsu—not to mention Taro’s influence—had taught me to appreciate horses more than I once did, they did bring complications and logistics with them, so much so I sometimes wondered if I could make better time on foot, on my own or even traveling with Kenji.

BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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