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Authors: Richard Parks

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BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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I must have looked as stunned as I felt, for Tagako hastened to add, “Please do not concern yourself, Lord Yamada. I am not your enemy, nor one to Teiko-hime’s memory.”

We were on very dangerous ground now, but Tagako was in control of the direction of the conversation and I knew there was nothing I could or should do, if I wanted to understand the
saiō
’s true intent.

“Then you grieved for Princess Teiko as I did,” I said.

She looked thoughtful. “I wonder if it was the same. Only you can name your own loss, but as for me, I lost my best and truest friend.”

I hesitated. “Somehow I do not think you invited me here to discuss old wounds.”

“No, that part was my own whim, and I accept your blame for any pain I may have caused you, though I regret I may not yet be done inflicting it. There are other things to discuss.”

I didn’t ask what she’d meant about causing more pain, since I was certain I’d find out soon enough. “What ‘other things’ are those, Tagako-hime?”

“Well, you must be wondering why you are in Ise at all.”

I hoped I wasn’t letting the shock I felt show on my face. “Is it so uncommon to make this pilgrimage on a journey to the Capital?”

“On the contrary—it is very common. However, that is not why you are here, is it? I think Lady Kuzunoha’s instructions from the crown prince’s uncle were very specific. I was expecting you.”

I thought very carefully before I answered. “May I ask how you knew this?”

“On her way to Kamakura, Lady Kuzunoha first made a visit to me. It must seem strange to you that I know so much of your current concerns, but as Teiko was a friend to me, so was her brother Kanemore. They made my time at court less of a burden. I have answered your question and ask you to please consider that I am telling you the truth. If you will answer mine, I promise to extend you the same courtesy.”

I suppressed a smile. “I’ve wondered about little else,” I said. “Lady Kuzunoha told me to travel here but not why.”

“I can help somewhat in that regard—Prince Kanemore did send you here for a reason . . . well, two reasons, really.”

By this time I was not as surprised as perhaps I would have been if she had mentioned it at the beginning of our conversation. “I do not suppose you would share with me what those reasons are?”

“Prince Kanemore wants you to meet with a gentleman from the Capital, and that is all I can say. Once you have met him, you will understand why. He will wait for you at the Naikū Shrine tomorrow evening,” she said, naming one of the two main sub-shrines under the jurisdiction of the Grand Shrine complex. There were, of course, others, though the Naikū was considered the most important, as it was dedicated to the worship of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the primary deity of the royal family and the reason the shrine complex was built in the first place.

“What about the other reason?” I asked.

There was that same sad smile, and again she didn’t bother to hide it before she turned her face away from me. “I’m afraid that one will have to wait until after you have had your meeting and possibly for a few days more. I’m sorry, but I have no control over the timing, as I must also apologize for being such a poor hostess.”

Tagako signaled to one of her attendants, who brought wine and rice cakes and set the refreshments in front of me before withdrawing. Princess Tagako was not so alienated from custom that she would lower herself to eat or drink in the presence of a man; the tray was for me. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, but I did take a little of the wine out of politeness. My time in my cups had not blurred the distinctions between good drink and bad but rather enhanced them, and I knew the saké before me was of the finest quality. Even so, I drank sparingly and not simply because I had no real desire for it. The longer I spent with Princess Tagako, the more she reminded me of Princess Teiko. Not physically but rather in the excellence and subtlety of her mind. If I’d learned nothing else from Teiko, it was that I needed to keep my wits about me in such situations. I had only her word on Kuzunoha’s visit, and while she knew Prince Kanemore’s instructions were consistent with this, it wasn’t proof she actually was in his confidence. Until I spoke with Kanemore himself, I couldn’t be sure if I could trust her. Yet my first impulse was to do exactly that, which was more than enough reason to proceed with caution.

Tagako hesitated. “There was one other thing.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Lord Yamada, if your reputation is even remotely deserved, you know ghosts are real,” she said.

“I’ve met more than a few,” I admitted.

“I don’t know if it has any bearing on these greater subjects, but I thought you should know—after Lady Kuzunoha’s visit, Princess Teiko appeared to me in my dreams.”

“It is not uncommon to dream of those we have lost,” I said.

She ignored my comment. “I am no seeress, Lord Yamada, but I have been
saiō
of the Grand Shrine for nearly eighteen years, and I do know the difference between an ordinary dream and a visitation. I’m telling you that Princess Teiko came to me.”

I don’t claim to always know when someone is lying, but sometimes I do know when they’re telling the truth, and at that moment I had no doubts.

“If she did appear to you, she must have had a reason.”

“I think it was to deliver a message. To both of us.”

Tagako already had my attention. Now I felt as if she also held my heart in her hands and was thinking of crushing it.

I barely got the words out. “What did she say?”

“In the dream I was lying on my sleeping mat but I was fully awake. She kneeled at my bedside and spoke to me. She asked me to tell you that ‘you are not finished.’ I don’t pretend to know what she meant.”

The exact words I had heard when she appeared to Kenji and me on the bridge. Tagako must have noticed my expression. “You’ve seen her too, haven’t you?”

I saw no point in denying it. I told Princess Tagako about our encounter on the bridge, and she looked thoughtful.

“The same message, so it must be important. Do
you
know what she meant?”

“I think so, but . . . ”

This time she covered her smile with her sleeve. “Don’t worry—I will not ask. The message was for you, not me.”

“Thank you. Nor will I ask what she said to you.”

She looked pensive. “Actually, I was hoping you could help me understand her meaning.”

I frowned. “Go on.”

“Dream time isn’t the same as waking time, but I am certain she was only at my bedside for a few moments. By the time she spoke of me, she was already starting to fade into darkness, and I’m not completely certain that I understood her. What I heard could be interpreted in one of two ways.”

“I’m listening.”

Princess Tagako looked uncomfortable. “At first I thought she was telling me to look out for you. It sounded like a warning.”

“You told me you were not my enemy. I can assure you, princess, I am not your enemy, either.”

“I believe you, but I am not sure your intentions were what she was referring to in this case. Then there was the other interpretation.”

“I hesitate to ask, but now I must. What was it?”

Princess Tagako looked even more uncomfortable now, and I think I detected a faint blush. “I think she may have been asking me to
look after
you. Not quite the same thing.”

“Perhaps she meant both,” I said, in a weak attempt to lighten the mood.

There was a flash of anger in Tagako’s eyes. “This is serious, Lord Yamada. Princess Teiko was my friend. If there’s something she wishes of me, if it is within my power I mean to do it.”

I considered her reaction, and answered her in the same serious manner. “Tagako-hime, while my friend Kenji would be the first to tell you that I do need looking after, that is not your burden to bear, and I am certain that Teiko didn’t intend it. I think the first interpretation is the most likely.”

Tagako frowned. “But why would she warn me of you?”

I gave her the only answer I had. “Perhaps because, despite my good fortune in surviving to this age and in what, however little, I may have accomplished, in some very important ways I am unlucky, perhaps even cursed. People near me often come to harm, Princess Teiko not the least of them, and I do not wish that for you, nor would she. That alone would be reason enough to be wary of me.”

Tagako remained silent for a moment. When she spoke again it sounded as if she were speaking of another subject entirely. “There is something else that my time as
saiō
has taught me.”

“May I ask what that is?”

“It’s about curses, Lord Yamada—they can be lifted.”

CHAPTER FOUR

The next morning dawned crisp and chilly. Already the sun was getting weaker, and the leaves of the maple trees were turning their autumn colors of red and yellow. We rode southeast from Saiku on the road toward the Grand Shrine. Morofusa had sent out riders to cover our left and right flanks, but that was mostly for show. A bandit attack this close to the shrine would have been unprecedented, even in the countryside’s unsettled state.

“You’ve barely said two words all morning,” Kenji observed as he rode beside me.

“Is that unusual?”

He grinned. “Yes. Usually you’ve said barely ten or so by this time. Are you going to tell me what happened with the
saiō
or not?”

“I’m still not entirely sure what happened, to be frank,” I said. I did relate most of my conversation with Princess Tagako including her account of Princess Teiko’s visitation, though I omitted several things, including Teiko’s message to the
saiō.
Kenji frowned as he considered what I had told him.

“I’m starting to think that everyone knows why we’re taking this path except the two of us. Do you believe the
saiō
is in Prince Kanemore’s confidence?”

“I won’t know for certain until I speak with the prince himself, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any way she could know what she knows otherwise. The logical conclusion is that she’s telling the truth. Not that it makes any difference at the moment.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean we know we’re supposed to be here, and nothing the
saiō
said to me changes that. If the reason truly is, in part, to meet with this mystery person, then we’ll know that much by day’s end.”

Kenji had no answer and changed the subject. “If the
saiō
s’s dream was a true one, then Princess Teiko’s spirit is being rather insistent. Which does make me wonder. I mean, you
know
your task isn’t done. Teiko’s son is not yet on the Chrysanthemum Throne. Such visitations take spiritual energy and can be draining for a spirit. Why would she believe it was so important?”

“It could mean that Takahito’s ascension is in more peril than I currently believe. It could also mean something else entirely. Honestly, Kenji-san, I am as baffled as you are.”

We covered the two leagues to the Grand Shrine without incident, traveling in the shadows of the twin mountains Shumaji and Kamaji as we descended toward the Isuzu river, arriving at the shrine complex around mid-afternoon.

“This was once the site of a fishing village called Uji-tachi,” Morofusa said. “Yet now the shrine has pretty much engulfed everything.”

I could see his what he meant. Everything, from shops and inns and barracks and every other conceivable structure all appeared to be either in service to or indeed a part of the Grand Shrine.

“I gather you have been here before, Morofusa-shōshō.”

“Many times, Yamada-sama. With your permission, I will see to our lodging while you conduct your business. Yoshitsune and three others of my choosing will accompany you.”

The way he spoke made it clear to me that this course wasn’t open for debate. While I was “officially” in command and an attack within Ise itself seemed unlikely, he had the responsibility for both the men in his detachment and my safety; I was more than willing to let him do as he thought best in that regard.

“Very well. Where can I find the Naikū Shrine?”

Morofusa pointed straight ahead. “That way leads to the sacred Uji bridge. Cross to the other side of the river and follow the path to the right along the riverbank, and it will take you there. You’ll need to walk, I’m afraid. Horses are allowed only on special occasions.”

“Gladly,” I said. I’d been in the saddle every day since we’d left Kamakura, and I welcomed the chance to stretch my legs. Even Kenji looked a little relieved. We dismounted and left our horses in Morofusa’s care. Together Kenji and I and the four
bushi
set out for the bridge.

“I can understand why the high priestess doesn’t reside at the Grand Shrine itself,” Kenji said after a few moments of walking. “This place is chaos.”

Between all the lesser shrines—more than a hundred, according to Kenji, some located within the town itself and some nearby—and the swarms of residents and pilgrims, I could very well see Kenji’s point. I imagined after the establishment of the Grand Shrine in its current form some centuries before, the building of Saiku and the Bamboo Palace at safe distances was probably the first order of business.

We proceeded toward the bridge, drawing almost no attention from the throngs around us. Considering the large numbers of noble and imperial visitors with much larger retinues, my small party must have been seen as unworthy of notice, for which I was a little grateful.

The Uji Bridge spanned the Isuzu River in a graceful arc. I had to pause for a moment at its apex to gaze over the river itself. After the spring rains and the heat of summer, the river was in its gentle phase, flowing in an unhurried stream before the rains of the eleventh month would arrive to hurry it along again. On the opposite shore, I could see the forest of massive
sugi
that bordered the path along the river.

“Those are some of the largest
sugi
I have ever seen,” I said. “Even the ones in the Capital are not so impressive.”

“They were here when the shrine was founded and of course never cut since,” Yoshitsune said. “Or so I have been told, Yamada-sama.”

BOOK: Yamada Monogatori: The Emperor in Shadow
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