Serpent of Time

Chapter 2

Rank and Privilege

Ryô’s attendants carried her back to the castle. The local apothecary was summoned to her bedchamber, the one place where Hatakeyama Koreya and his men could be refused entrance without argument.

The old man raised his eyebrows at the curious blue scar twined around her spine, frowned, squinted, poked and prodded.

“Princess was born with that,” Sen finally snapped, then more patiently assured him the birthmark was unrelated to Ryô’s other bumps and bruises.

Ryô wasn’t so sure it was unrelated, though she couldn’t remember why. Growing up in Yoshino, she’d heard the stories whispered about her—that she bore on her back the brand of the serpent that haunted Lake Biwa, that her mother had insisted she be called “Ryô,” that it was a miracle she survived the birth.

Her mother’s demands were accounted to delirium, but the emperor acceded to her dying wish and named his daughter the “Dragon Princess.”

The apothecary applied moxa and prescribed Chinese herbs. The events of the afternoon blurred together and took on the qualities of a strange dream. Except for one thing Ryô quite clearly remembered.

“What did Koreya mean by his roof? What I think he meant?”

The guilty look on Sen’s face mostly answered the question. “I’d heard rumors about a marriage being arranged between you and a Hatakeyama clansman, but couldn’t believe they were true. Or that Koreya-san was the intended groom.”

Ryô would have bolted to her feet in a fury if her body didn’t hurt so much. She lay on the futon and seethed. “They expect me to marry into a merchant’s family? That is as insulting as it is insane.”

“I believe Koreya-san would be the first of your suitors who actually possessed the martial skills of a samurai. Certainly the temper. The temperament is another matter. Appearances at court could prove most interesting.”

Ryô glared at her lady-in-waiting. “His father bought him the title. He thinks he can buy me. My family may be defeated but I am not for sale.”

“I know, I know,” Sen said, assuring Ryô she was only teasing. “Fighting wars is expensive and Koreya-san’s father is rich. He fosters greater aspirations for his son than mere samurai status.”

Mere—it must have cost Koreya’s father, a Yamakawa merchant guild boss, a small fortune to engineer his son’s adoption into the powerful Hatakeyama clan.

Sen added, “Considering the costs of restoring the imperial prerogatives of the Northern Court, I can imagine the shogun arranging such a marriage as a means of pairing retribution and remuneration. He wants to embarrass the Southern Court.”

Ryô sniffed. “It was Ôuchi Yoshihiro who negotiated my father’s surrender and abdication, not Koreya or the shogun’s henchmen.”

“And Lord Yoshihiro is threatening war because of that stolen credit, not to mention the shogun confiscating his Kitayama estate as punishment for his insolence.” Sen shook her head. “Regardless of the reasons, when two bulls start fighting, the wisest strategy is to stay out of the middle.”

Ryô mused aloud, “But Yoshihiro is the only one who can convince the other clans to shift their support to Mitsukane. That Mitsukane harbors every expectation of being appointed the next shogun is the worst-kept secret in Kyôto.”

“Which explains why he ended up the deputy shogun in far-off Kamakura. In any case, Lord Mitsukane strikes me as the kind of man who won’t start down a road unless he knows exactly where it will end. He would rebel against his uncle only after victory was already assured.”

“And Yoshihiro is just the man to assure him of victory. Think of what we could accomplish!”

“We?”

Ryô was too caught up imagining the possibilities to hear the skepticism in Sen’s voice. “If Yoshihiro becomes the power behind the throne, everybody knows he would recognize the alternate rule of my father’s court, not pay it lip service. Supporters of the Southern Court would have the confidence to express their allegiances in public. As things stand now, he’s only playing into the shogun’s hands.”

“I would be careful about acting on what everybody knows. Nor can I imagine how you would communicate such intentions to Lord Yoshihiro without alarming the shogun.”

“The shogun and Yoshihiro are currently at loggerheads. They need a third party to intercede. I outrank them both. I could negotiate with Yoshihiro on the shogun’s behalf.”

Sen nodded but hardly looked convinced.

Ryô said, “We would gain a powerful patron. At the very least, it’d put an end to the pretensions of all these nouveau riche upstarts.”

Sen raised her eyebrows and said with a bluntness only she was allowed, “In any case, powerful patrons are rarely satisfied with earnest thankfulness alone. Lord Yoshihiro would likely expect, well, additional forms of compensation.”

“If that’s what it comes down to.” Ryô turned on her side. “A pretend samurai on one hand, a true nobleman on the other. There’s no comparison.” She added with an audible sniff, “No child of mine will have to bow to anyone.”

“Yes, I am sure you could arrange politically propitious marriages for all your offspring,” Sen said dryly. “Supposing, of course, that Lord Yoshihiro’s wife did not object.”

“My mother was a sokushitsu,” by which Ryô meant a sanctioned concubine. The higher-ranked the aristocrat, the higher-ranked his sokushitsu. “Besides, I don’t care who becomes the next shogun as long as I don’t have to spend the rest of my life at the mercy of this one. If Yoshihiro does not wish me to share his bed, he could ship me off to the hinterlands for all I care, as long as my life is my own. I could manage his villa in Kitayama. Or rather, you could.”

Sen cocked her head to the side and pondered the proposition. “You know, I think I could—manage an estate like Kitayama.” She said in plainer tones, “But that means making the enemy of your enemy your friend.” She made it sound like a dubious proposition at best.

“I am not certainly going to marry any damned son of a merchant guild boss.”

That expletive was the other thing Ryô remembered Sen yelling at Koreya that afternoon at the dock. Sen blanched. She’d spent enough time in Kyôto’s high society to know that those who’d earned their station in the most mercenary ways were the ones least likely to forgive the slightest slight.

Ryô rolled onto her stomach and murmured, the medicines beginning to take hold, “Don’t worry, Sen. No son of a merchant will make a wife out of me or outrank you. Not ever.”

“Rank is what men say it is,” Sen countered, tucking the cool silk sheets around the princess’s shoulders.


Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.