Serpent of Time

Chapter 5

The Rebellion

Yoshihiro’s challenge to the shogun was answered within the week.

Right on the heels of Ryô’s “diplomatic mission,” the combined forces of the Hatakeyama, Hosokawa, and Shiba clans pinned down Yoshihiro’s Iwami and Izumi troops at the Yamato River. Blocked from surging north to Kyôto, they were forced back inside the city.

The siege of Sakai had already lasted through the second week of December.

Smoke hung like a heavy winter fog over the city. The gray ash and stench invaded every nook and cranny, every public and private space, of commoner and royalty alike.

From the cupola of the castle, Ryô watched as the fire arrows swooped across the Yamato River like a flock of incandescent sparrows, setting another neighborhood of the city ablaze. Yoshihiro’s soldiers soon doused the flames and retook the worthless ground and the stalemate continued.

“What an unmitigated disaster,” she grumbled through gritted teeth.

Sen spelled out the more immediate dangers. “If—when—the shogun’s armies overrun the city, Lord Yoshihiro will likely choose seppuku over capture. His clansmen, in turn, will blame the femme fatale who bewitched him to such a sad end. At that point, Koreya keeping you under lock and key might be the best way to stay alive.”

“This wasn’t my idea! I wanted to stop the war from breaking out!”

“The record will show that it was very much your idea to come here. I suppose you could take pride in having given the opposing sides a common enemy.”

Ryô sighed and changed the subject. “Could you arrange passage on any of the ships leaving port?”

“There are no ships leaving port. The word on the docks is that the shogun bought off the Shikoku and Awaji pirates. They’ve bottled up the Inland Sea privateers who’ve been supplying Sakai.”

Ryô wasn’t surprised but this information rekindled her fury. “Yoshihiro can’t even ensure honor among his thieves!” she fumed. She did have the presence of mind to muffle her scorn as they turned down the main corridor of the castle keep. Ryô had demanded an audience with the man himself.

They came to the war room and brushed past the startled guards. The daughter of a cloistered emperor by a sanctioned concubine, Ryô was a Fujiwara by birth and right. Her imperial presence left them perplexed about the proper protocols.

As far as Fujiwara Ryô was concerned, they should be. Everybody was below her socially. What was the problem? That one fact made life so simple. All the complicated questions about how to talk and who to bow to had one simple answer.

She stomped into the war room. Ôuchi Yoshihiro looked up, his amused smile quickly turning into a frown. “Where are your privateers?” she said, her tone of voice demanding a response. “Where are your allies? Where is Mitsukane?”

The question caught him off guard. He averted his eyes and swore under his breath. The air grew thick with quiet loathing. Ryô felt herself quail. She’d asked the question out of genuine curiosity, expecting to be told the deputy shogun of Kamakura and his army were a few days away at most. This reaction meant the end game was no longer in question.

“He’s not coming?” she cried. “You’ve got no access to the sea, no way to break the siege? This is madness!”

Yoshihiro’s features darkened. “You never wanted me to succeed.”

“I came here to encourage you to unite the clans, not wage war against them.”

He snorted. “You came here as the shogun’s puppet.” He sorted through the field reports scattered across the table, found a dispatch, and held it up for her to see. “That Hatakeyama Koreya chap is again asking to parley for your release.” He crumpled it up and tossed it onto the floor. “The shogun wants his poodle back.”

You should be the one negotiating free passage.”

Ryô took care to ignore Sen. Sen had knelt next to the wall, waiting for her lady as behooved a lady-in-waiting. But she’d done so in a location that allowed her to slowly inch over to the writing desk behind Yoshihiro.

Yoshihiro rose to his feet. He towered over her, his features dark with anger. “You think far too highly of yourself. Marrying that far down in society would do you some good.”

Ryô glared up at him. “If you had once shown the same kind of courage in the shogun’s presence that you do in mine, this stupid war could have been avoided!”

Out of the corner of her eyes, past the wall of Yoshihiro’s chest, she saw Sen’s right shoulder dip, her hand hidden out of view inside the sleeve of her kimono.

“Courage? Your courage consists of claiming victory for yourselves and blaming defeat on others.

He flung out his arm in Sen’s direction. Sen was from the Kusunoki clan, the Southern Court’s most loyal supporters. Her grandfather, Kusunoki Masanori, was the Southern Court’s greatest general, having conquered Kyôto on four separate occasions. As governor of Izumi Province, he’d sought to reconcile the Northern and Southern Courts through diplomatic means. When the Northern Court prevailed, Sen’s clansmen lost their sinecures and Sen’s father accompanied the emperor, Ryô’s father, into exile.

Ryô couldn’t help glancing in Sen’s direction. And there was Sen standing next to her, a look of perfect innocence on her face. Ryô’s profound relief emboldened her all the more.

“At least General Kusunoki took the fight to the enemy instead of waiting for the fight to come to him!”

Yoshihiro leaned forward and growled, “How well did that turn out for you and your father?”

Their mutual provocations were a slight thing compared to the shogun’s wolves at the door. But Ryô was right there for Yoshihiro to despise and the shogun wasn’t. Having an enemy in common no more made them friends than before. Sen took Ryô by the shoulders and propelled her out of the room.

After they left, a stouter set of soldiers took up their posts in front of the door. They would do a good job keeping her out, for Ryô had no desire to ever go back in.

“This truly is madness,” she repeated. “I suspected from the start it was a lost cause but not this lost. If he only had a navy! How could he occupy a port city without a navy? And if he’d shown up at court!” That was the real burr in her saddle. “The Southern Court has sympathizers in high places. The shogun’s own nephew—”

“—who came to the same conclusion and probably months ago.” Sen meant Ashikaga Mitsukane, who was supposed to be rushing to Yoshihiro’s aid. “I’m sure he is groveling his way back into his uncle’s good graces as we speak. Hardly a reliable ally.”

“Exactly! To think I once admired Yoshihiro for the negotiations he conducted with the Southern Court! He’s incompetent. So what if the shogun didn’t give him the fiefs he deserved! He should have swallowed his pride.”

Sen rolled her eyes.

“What?” Ryô said.

“A rare gift, the ability to take stock of one’s pride and cast it aside when no longer useful. If only this talent were more widely shared.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sen paused. “Oh, nothing. Only that war involves more luck and less valor than men like to admit.”

Ryô said nothing more on their way back to her quarters. Only after she’d dismissed the servants and closed the door did she dare whisper, “Did you get it?”

Sen reached into the sleeve of her kimono and held out the seal. Ôuchi Yoshihiro’s official seal. Here was the real reason for the afternoon’s visit—simple theft.

Ryô caught her breath and let the reality sink in. “So it’s come to this. I’ll have to escape to somewhere where they can’t find me.”

“I’m sure you are still a prize worth the trouble to the Hatakeyama clan. Once you get outside the castle, they would take you in.”

“Run to Koreya now and I would have to marry him. They wouldn’t let you anywhere near me after that.”

Sen nodded and tucked the seal into her sleeve. She draped a dark, dowdy cloak around her shoulders and said, “Pick out your plainest kimono, let your hair down, take off your jewelry, scrub off your makeup and perfume.”

After Sen left, Ryô sighed and stared out the window for a long time. Finally she wrinkled her nose at the clinging cold and the acrid haze and sighed again before slamming the shutters closed.

“That blasted Yoshihiro didn’t even have the sense to schedule his revolt for a more clement time of year.”

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