Read Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow Online

Authors: Richard Parks

Tags: #novel, #fantasy

Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow (4 page)

BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
5.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“—I would think we were being followed? Yes, I’ve come to the same conclusion—this
onibi
is the same one we saw in Suruga. Normally, one ghost flame looks like any other. This one is bluish as you would expect, but around the halo there is a distinctive red shimmer. It’s a subtle difference, and hard to pick up from a distance, so I wasn’t sure until now.”

Kenji still looked puzzled. “I don’t understand. A proper ghost remains either where it died or haunts a place that holds some significance to it.”

“Or a person,” I said.

Kenji shrugged. “True, but it would need a compelling reason, like a lost love or a murder victim seeking revenge. What ghost would follow us?”

“I’ve killed a lot of people,” I said, and it was true. One day, not too long before, I had given in to the impulse to sit myself down and count them all. This was a mistake. It was the closest I had come to drinking myself into a stupor in a long time.

Kenji ignored that. “All of whom, as I recall, were trying to kill
you
at the time, and that doesn’t even consider those on the battlefield. In no instance was it murder, and thus there can be no justifiable grudge. I repeat my question—what ghost would follow us?”

“I don’t know. Let’s go find out.” I rose from the veranda and Kenji followed my example. Together we crossed into the garden and found the path that the
onibi
appeared to be following.

Kenji had a ward in his hand. “I could attempt an exorcism.”

“The ghost is unlikely to sit still for that. Regardless, what if you succeeded? Then we’d never know.” Kenji shook his head and put the ward away. “We’re choosing curiosity over caution, and I hope we don’t regret it.”

It was a cloudy night, and while the waning moon was still high in the sky, it was obscured and the ghost light was the most visible thing in the garden. We watched as the
onibi
floated along a well-marked path in the garden like a noble lady enjoying a stroll. Kenji and I moved as quickly as we dared, attempting to close the distance. I knew that the ghost flame could disappear in an instant. I also knew that, with all due respect to our stealth, sneaking up on a ghost was next to impossible unless its attention was entirely focused elsewhere. Here there was no such focus, no such
intent.
The
onibi
seemed to be in no particular hurry, and we were getting closer by the moment. I stopped, and it was a moment or two before Kenji noticed and turned back.

“What’s wrong?” he whispered.

“An
onibi
signals the presence of a ghost like a banner. This one not only doesn’t bother to conceal its presence but also wears a distinctive appearance, unlike a normal ghost light. This ghost, whoever it may be, wanted us to know it was following us.”

“Another aspect to the mystery,” Kenji conceded, “Whoever this ghost is knows us . . . or
me
or
you
, depending. None of which alters the reality that
we
do not know
them.
And won’t, perhaps, if we don’t catch up to it. Until then, we are at a distinct disadvantage.”

I agreed with everything Kenji said. Even so, it did nothing to allay the growing unease I felt. My instincts said it was a trap, even though, realistically, I couldn’t fathom what sort of trap it might be. A powerful ghost was certainly dangerous, but I had confidence in Kenji’s abilities, should the spirit prove hostile. Even so, I was afraid, and I didn’t understand
why
I was afraid. This worried me as much as the presence of the ghost.

When Kenji moved forward again, I made myself do the same. The ghost light had moved some distance away from us after I stopped, but now we realized it had stopped as well. The path led to a garden pond and a small island, accessible by a moon bridge. The
onibi
hovered there at the highest part of the arch.

Is it waiting for us
?

We moved closer and were rewarded by a translucent outline, partly illuminated by the ghost light itself.

“It’s a woman,” Kenji said, stating what was, at that moment, very obvious, but as yet we could discern no finer details of dress or appearance.

There was a place along the path where it swept closer to the pond. Realizing we would have a much better view of the bridge and therefore the apparition from there, I forced myself to quicken my pace slightly. As we drew nearer, more details became clear. Now I could see the distinct silhouette of the formal robes worn by noblewomen, but nothing yet of colors other than the faint red glow cast by the ghost light.

“That is court dress,” Kenji said.

There was no mistaking it now. The apparition wore the
karaginu mo
, the twelve-layer kimono and Chinese overjacket that marked the court style. Whoever the ghost had been in life, she had been a lady of the imperial court and a high-ranking one.

Manifesting near Kamakura and following us from the provinces all the way to Ise Bay?

I almost stopped myself from taking the last several steps to where the path nearly touched the water, but it was far too late for that now. The moon cast its light, and in that moment the ghost was fully revealed.

“Princess Teiko!”

No sooner had Kenji spoken the words than we both dropped to our knees and bowed low, almost by reflex. I had to force myself to look up, perhaps hoping that Kenji had been wrong—that we both had been wrong. Teiko smiled at me then. The voice that reached out to us was faint, but unmistakable.

“You are not done. There is more.”

A cloud scudded across the face of the waning moon, dropping the garden into a deeper shadow. When it had passed, Teiko was gone.

Kenji poured the first round. “Well, now we know who was following us, and you were right, Lord Yamada—she wanted us to know.”

I didn’t bother to reply. I was on my third cup of rice wine before Kenji spoke again.

“Old habits, Lord Yamada?”

I stared at the wine. I had known men and women for who rice wine had been everything. I had never been one of those, despite my reputation. My drinking—although extensive and heavy—had always had a purpose aside from the drinking itself, and when that purpose was gone, so was the need. Perhaps I had been wrong about that purpose being no more but now, I believed, was not the time to reconsider.

“I see you’re not lagging behind me,” I said, and it was true enough. Kenji had matched me cup for cup since we had returned to our room.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know.”

Kenji grunted. He didn’t say anything else for a little while, but we both finished our cups and neither reached for more. “That was . . . unexpected.”

Even after all these years, I still wasn’t certain how much Kenji knew about my relationship with Princess Teiko, though I was certain he knew more than most. What he wasn’t saying now spoke louder than his words.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Kenji looked at me. “I thought it was clear enough—Takahito is still not on the throne.”

I stared at the empty cup. “That Crown Prince Takahito still has not ascended is rather obvious, and Princess Teiko, as I recall, had a visceral disdain for the obvious. She’s almost certainly referring to something else.”

“Do you know what?”

“No.”

Kenji considered my answer. “That’s not what you meant when you said ‘I don’t understand,’ was it?”

“I told you about Shinoda Forest,” I said.

“Yes, that time Princess Teiko’s ghost was rumored to be haunting the woods. Only it turned out to be Lady Kuzunoha trying to get your attention—which worked. I was there, as I recall.”

“You weren’t there when I spoke to Princess Teiko’s ghost,” I said.

“That was Lady Kuzunoha still impersonating Princess Teiko.”

“She denied it,” I pointed out.

“You and I both know she was lying out of kindness,” Kenji said. “While I will admit that such consideration is a rare trait in a fox demon, I’m willing to concede that Lady Kuzunoha has a touch of charity in her soul, as I have seen it in action more than once. When her life is done, it may even shorten her time in hell.”

“Perhaps I am simply deluding myself. But whether it was to her ghost or not, I said my farewells to Princess Teiko there in Shinoda Forest.”

“Perhaps you did,” Kenji said. “I know you said the words, and I do think that helped you at the time. Yet whether you did or did not, one thing remains clear.”

I frowned. “What is that?”

“Princess Teiko has not yet done the same to you.”

CHAPTER THREE

After we crossed the rivers that emptied into the sea at the north end of Ise Bay we turned south again. The bay was to our left, and the mountains separating Ise from Kyoto rose to our right. I hoped to reach the eastern end of Suzuka Pass by the end of the second day. When our business at the Grand Shrine was complete, our plan was to take that pass through the mountains to Kyoto, but for now our journey was still south.

As we crossed another small river at mid-morning, an arrow hummed past my horse’s head, and then another struck Kenji’s mount near the base of the saddle and he was nearly thrown.

“Bandits!”

By then I didn’t need the
bushi
’s warning. The archers had hidden themselves in a line of bushes on the near shore, and we were caught in the open. There was a large grove on the opposite bank, and for all we knew it was thick with bandits as well, but I quickly judged our chances at close quarters would be far better than they were at the moment, as we were nothing but targets.

“Forward!”

We raced across the shallow river with two
bushi
acting as rearguard, attempting to cover us by exchanging arrow volleys with the bandits as they rode, but they had no clear targets and likely the only thing that kept them alive was the swiftness of their horses. When we reached the grove, we were rushed by several small groups of ill-kempt men brandishing spears. Fortunately they were as ill-trained as they were equipped, for I was able to ride down the first and decapitate the second. Our escorts were veterans of the war in Mutsu province, and they had little trouble dealing with the rest of our attackers. I counted ten bodies on the ground, fortunately none of them our own.

“If they had rushed us all at once, they might have fared better,” said Morofusa. “They had the numbers.”

“They still might. What about the archers?”

He smiled then. “Listen.”

I did. At first I heard nothing, but then came the screams. Just as abruptly as they started, they ended. “Fortunately there were only three archers, by my estimation. I think they were
meant
to drive us into the grove, which was a good plan but poorly executed. I sent Ujiyasu and Yoshitsune to flank them. I think they succeeded.”

The swift return of the two men in question proved his confidence was not misplaced. They immediately dismounted to report.

“Three?” Morofusa asked.

“Three,
shōshō
,” confirmed Yoshitsune. “By the time we broke cover, we were already on them, though Ujiyasu-san was hit in the shoulder.”

“Let me look at that wound,” Kenji said, and Yoshitsune helped Ujiyasu remove his armor. Kenji finally nodded. “Superficial, but a nasty gash nonetheless.” Kenji sent one of the attendants to prepare bandages. “The bleeding itself will clean it out. Once the wound is bound properly it should heal.”

“Thank you, Master Kenji,” Ujiyasu said.

“We were lucky it wasn’t worse. I assume we can expect more attacks?” I asked.

Morofusa looked uncomfortable. “Very possible, Yamada-sama. Most of the clans keep order well enough in their own territories, but the closer to the Capital one gets . . . ”

He didn’t finish, not that he had to. The Fujiwara were the dominant group in the Capital, and although both rich and politically powerful, for the most part they felt that martial pursuits were beneath them, and the emperor kept no army of his own. Compared to the forces available to the provincial military families like the Minamoto, Taira, and Hojo, the territories surrounding the Capital were relatively unsupervised. Officially, it was a small police force comprised of noblemen who kept order. Most didn’t take their assignments very seriously and even the temples had long since begun keeping their own defense forces of armed lay brothers, the
sohei
, for protection. It was only a constant supply of
bushi
provided by loyal military clans that kept banditry out of Heian-kyo itself.

“Will Ujiyasu-san be well enough to ride?” I asked Kenji. “Where there are
some
bandits, there are likely more. I’d like to put a little distance between ourselves and this place.”

“Once I’ve finished with him,” Kenji said. “Though it would be best if he wasn’t called upon to fight for a few days. I don’t want the wound reopening.”

“I have no control over that, but let us hope for the best,” I said.

We reached the terminus of the Suzuka Pass without further incident. We did meet an armed group there, but it turned out to be another Minamoto force accompanying a high-ranking pilgrim returning to the Capital after visiting the Grand Shrine. Whoever it was traveled by carriage and wished for privacy. Morofusa knew several of the
bushi
in the escort, and there was a pause for greetings and brief conversations before separating and each continuing on their way.

“Odd,” Morofusa said.

“What is?” I asked.

“Well . . . I took it upon myself to ask Jun, the
shōshō
of that escort, who the pilgrim was. Their client was a man, but otherwise Jun couldn’t tell me his name.”

“You mean Jun was forbidden?” I asked, but Morofusa shook his head.

“I mean he didn’t
know.
A separate group delivered the person, whoever it was, to the shrine. Jun’s group was ordered by Yoriyoshi-sama himself to travel here and take the man back to the Capital, but the client travels veiled.”

That
was
strange. Normally, a pilgrimage to the Grand Shrine would be a topic of pride, and one would want it known that one had done so. Secrecy seemed out of place, to say the least. That the head of the Minamoto clan was personally involved could have meant much or little. The military families often provided armed escorts for a price, which could only mean two things. The first, the man was not a member of one of the military families himself, so he was most likely a court noble. The second, that the pilgrim was a man of means, which under the circumstances was obvious.

BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
5.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Cat's Cradle by Julia Golding
Once minutos by Paulo Coelho
The Obedient Wife by Carolyn Faulkner
Don't Let Go by Michelle Lynn
A Dream of Desire by Nina Rowan
Marrying the Enemy by Nicola Marsh
The Curse of the Holy Pail #2 by Jaffarian, Sue Ann
Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
Acting Up by Kristin Wallace
Purity of Blood by Arturo Pérez-Reverte