Serpent of Time

Chapter 4

Wolves and Sheep

The first item on the agenda was finding a minister willing to back Ryô’s proposal to intercede with Yoshihiro on the shogun’s behalf.

“Preferably somebody with royal connections or at least Southern Court sympathies,” Ryô primly opined.

“Let’s not let our personal preferences get in the way of accomplishing the objective,” Sen reminded her.

Lurking in a corner of the Hikone Castle library, Hatakeyama Koreya stopped scowling long enough to say, “I’ll have one of my couriers deliver your proposal to my uncle.”

“Your uncle? What, so he can bribe somebody?”

The scowl returned. “The deputy shogun of Kyôto, Hatakeyama Motokuni.”

“Oh, your step-uncle.”

“Your assistance would be greatly appreciated,” Sen said. She handed him a draft and he trotted off.

“Why did he agree so quickly?” Ryô said as soon as he left the room.

Sen frowned as well. “Like the rest of them, he must see a personal profit in the project. Well, gift horses and all that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant of what motivates men when it comes to women. You’re the one throwing herself at Lord Yoshihiro.”

“In order to get rid of him,” Ryô whispered, jerking her head at the door through which Koreya had just departed.

“Then make sure he doesn’t know that,” Sen answered with a vehemence that stung, the implication being Ryô would do just that to tick him off.

Koreya’s pull turned out to be real. The deputy shogun of Kyôto endorsed the proposal. Princess Ryô received a permit to travel to Sakai. There she would persuade Lord Ôuchi Yoshihiro to resolve his differences with the shogun.

Koreya accompanied them. She didn’t have any choice in the matter. He and his company of mounted samurai put on a good show. The banners of the Ashikaga and Hatakeyama clans fluttering proudly in the wind, the commoners kowtowing along the roadside—it made for a splendid procession.

Ryô had last traveled with a full retinue seven years ago when she was exiled from Yoshino, the seat of the Southern Court. This trip south, to Ôsaka and then along the coast to Sakai, took two weeks. The otherwise two or three day trip was interrupted by audiences with every minor governor and warlord along the route.

For once, Ryô didn’t mind the empty formalities. This was the first time since her exile she’d been south of Kyôto, let alone to the sea. Sakai was a thriving port town. That buoyed her confidence.

She was taken to the war room of Sakai Castle, where Ôuchi Yoshihiro sat in council with his generals. They were decked out in full battle dress.

The sight caught her up short. She was only ten when he marched his army into Yoshino to negotiate her father’s abdication, young enough to imagine he must be the most powerful man in the world. He cut a no less imposing figure seven years later.

“Well, look who’s all grown up,” Yoshihiro said. “The shogun’s pretty little poodle. How the wheel of fate turns.”

Ryô recoiled at the undisguised condescension. Flustered at the shattering of the bittersweet reunion she had long imagined, she barked at him, “I am here of my own volition! And for your own good!”

“If you say so. I see you have something you wish me to read. I haven’t the time for ingénues delivering self-important speeches.” He held out his hand.

Ryô passed the letter to Sen. Sen presented it to the aide-de-camp. He handed it to Yoshihiro, who gave it a cursory glance and tossed it aside. The scroll of rice paper fluttered to the floor like a tired leaf.

As if on cue, Koreya stepped forward, his long sword rattling against his riding armor. He produced a similar document and unfurled it for all to see. “This summons bears the seal of the deputy shogun of Kyôto and carries the full weight of his office. Having rejected Princess Ryô’s petition, Lord Ôuchi Yoshihiro is hereby ordered to appear at court and explain his actions before the Council of Elders.”

“What!” exclaimed Ryô. This was her diplomatic mission. She needed more time to persuade Yoshihiro, to spell out the reasons and hint at the rewards. Koreya must have been prepared for this possibility from the start, and had stepped into “save” her before she demonstrably failed.

She darted forward to grab the document out of his hands. Sen physically restrained her.

Yoshihiro took the summons from Koreya and made a great show of reading it, shaking his head in disbelief and furrowing his brows. “And you are?” he said, coming to the end of his performance and looking up.

“Hatakeyama Koreya,” the merchant samurai declared, throwing back his broad shoulders.

“A Hatakeyama, eh? Well, then tell the deputy shogun to tell the shogun it is time to let the force of arms settle the matter. The incompetence of this regime has lasted long enough.”

Ryô gaped. Her outrage overwhelmed her grasp of the simple facts spelled out in front of her. “You idiot!” she yelled at Yoshihiro.

She looked back and forth between the two men. Koreya’s eyes met hers for a fraction of a second. A small disillusioned smile, a small shake of the head. The harsh reality came crashing down on her. During all those “courtesy calls” they’d made on the way to Sakai, the shogun’s agents had been lining up allies willing to wage the probable war. She was only a tool to test Yoshihiro’s true intentions.

Yoshihiro gave her the look a parent gives a fractious child. Ryô shut her mouth and blinked away the tears of frustration stinging the corners of her eyes. As far as Ôuchi Yoshihiro was concerned, she was still the ten-year-old royal tomboy he’d met in Yoshino.

He gestured at the guards lining both sides of the room. Indicating Koreya and his men, “Escort them out of the city.” With a nod at Ryô and Sen, “Those two to the living quarters upstairs.”

Koreya and Ryô raised their voices in protest, Koreya now demonstrating genuine outrage. “Princess Ryô came here under the shogun’s banner! With your guarantee of safe passage!”

“And she is safely here,” Yoshihiro impassively replied.

“What use do you have for a daughter of the Southern Court? That imperial line has run its course! She’s only a pawn in this game, a means to an end now accomplished!”

Yoshihiro shrugged. “Perhaps I have no use for her. But you obviously do.”

Koreya took a step back. He’d overplayed his hand, let his temper get the better of him. Ryô flinched as well, the words of both men ricocheting through her head.

She was a dead stone on the go board, surrounded and about to be captured. Koreya made his move and reached for the piece. Yoshihiro took it first, if only to deny it to his opponent.

The guards surrounded and separated them, forcing Koreya and his men to retreat. He glared daggers at her from the hallway, undoubtedly blaming her for Yoshihiro’s decision.

After all, Ryô had scampered into this den of wolves at her own initiative, a sheep in sheep’s clothing. The formalities dispensed with, the pretenses cast aside, the sheep had no place to go. In the unlikely event she was allowed to leave with Koreya, she’d be locking herself inside another golden cage and throwing away the key.

And if she didn’t, she might never again. Instead of patiently wooing the fence-sitting clans to his side, Yoshihiro planned to steal a march on the shogun before the shogun stole a march on him. But unless Mitsukane rushed to guard his rear as promised, the revolt was doomed and Ryô might not survive the outcome.

“You can’t—”

The doors slammed shut. She stopped herself in mid-sentence. Yoshihiro and his generals were already laughing at Koreya’s humiliating exit. Yoshihiro wasn’t interested in anything she had to say. Here in Sakai Castle, his commands were the only ones anybody listened to.

Ryô and Sen were hustled up the stairs and into a large room, sending the servants lounging there scurrying about in a panic. The room was lined with tatami mats and subdivided by screens, a stark contrast with the rough-hewn timbers overhead.

Stunned, Ryô stared off into space. Then her shoulders slumped. “Wonderful. I’m a hostage no one wants released, for a ransom no one can pay.”

“Look at it this way,” Sen said. “You’ve got a whole army between you and Koreya.”

Sen’s observations could be a tad too biting at times.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.