Serpent of Time

Chapter 6

Parting Ways

Sen returned after sunset. Her cheeks were rosy. She was breathing hard. Her hair smelled of smoke and cinders.

She dismissed the servants, physically herded them out of the room. When it came to the help, Ryô was scraping the bottom of the barrel. The whole lot was ignorant of court protocols, as ill-mannered as they were ill-bred, and downright lazy to boot. They couldn’t keep a secret to save their lives.

“Better that no one believes them to be our friends when this is over,” said the far more forgiving Sen.

The servants snapped to attention like soldiers in her presence. One of Ryô’s keener unspoken regrets about her father’s abdication was never seeing Sen come into her own. She could have run the Inner Palace better than any warlord managed his domain.

“Have you eaten dinner?”

“Yes,” Ryô said blankly, belatedly realizing the inquiry wasn’t a conversation starter but a request for information.

Sen nodded and marched into the adjoining room and started rooting through the closets. Ryô hurried after her. “See?” she said, quite proud of herself. She fetched the kimono off the rack and held it up. It wasn’t her plainest. It was a compromise. She could compromise when it mattered.

Sen tossed it aside and handed her the one that was the plainest. She helped her undo her obi sash then returned to ransacking the closets. Ryô had undressed down to her under-kimono when Sen handed her another shift and tabi stockings and an ugly pair of leggings she never wore.

“Put these on too.”

“Too?”

“Over the ones you have on.”

“Over?” Ryô echoed.

“We’re leaving tonight.”

“What! Tonight?” She’d assumed that Sen wanted to see if the kimono needed hemming up, which it did.

The object of Sen’s search was hidden at the back of the closet. She set the box on the floor and helped Ryô struggle into an extra pair of everything.

Ryô was beginning to feel like a stuffed doll. Her reflection in the mirror looked as drab as she felt. “Why so soon?”

“The better question is why so late. With his back against the wall, I also believed that Lord Yoshihiro would negotiate. But if the thought ever occurred to him, his hand was too weak by the time he was willing to consider it. The same goes for us. Guards that can be bribed tonight will demand a price we cannot afford tomorrow. I managed to secure transportation to Kishiwada and quarters for you there. There is no reclaiming that money once spent.”

Ryô shook her head in quiet disbelief. The competence of her lady-in-waiting never ceased to amaze her. Sen opened the box and took out a quilted kimono jacket. She must have been saving it for this moment. It was even drabber, but warm, and heavier than it looked.

“I’ve sewn coins into the hems and a letter of transit into the collar. It will allow you to cross from Izumi Province into Kii Province. Stay at Ryûjinguchi women’s temple at Mt. Kôya until I catch up with you. I’ve included a note that explains everything.”

“Mt. Kôya.” Ryô thought for a moment. She said excitedly, “Mt. Kôya isn’t far from Yoshino!”

“Do not go to Yoshino. You know your father cannot help you there. After Nara, that will be the first place they’ll come looking for you, and you’d have to make another border crossing in unfriendly territory. My uncle should be able to find a place for us to stay on Mt. Kôya, at least temporarily.”

Ryô nodded. Something smooth and hard pressed against her left arm. She reached inside the sleeve and pulled a slender dagger out of its cloth pocket.

Sen said, “That’s for a real emergency, like running into a disagreeable boar. Draw a dagger on a man with a long sword and you might as well turn it on yourself.”

“I know that. I’d rather have a long sword.”

Sen threw on a jacket and pushed Ryô out the door. They took the servants’ corridors down to the ground floor of the keep, and crossed through the lowest of the warehouse vaults. A man was pulling an empty ox cart—sans any oxen—up the ramp.

Ryô frowned. The stone bridge between the inner and outer baileys was not much wider than the cart and she didn’t see anyplace where they could hide. But they weren’t going that way. Sen instead squeezed around an unfinished wall and inched along a half-completed parapet over the moat.

They emerged a few feet above the water. Below them, a man crouched in what looked like a big wooden washing tub. Ryô cast a disbelieving look at Sen, though her face was too dark to see anyway. Sen helped her down the mossy stones into the tub, then curled up against the staves opposite her.

The man knelt between them. He poled across the swampy moat, laying the pole against the water and bobbing along at the slightest sign of movement on the baileys. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at a nook at the far edge of the outer courtyard.

The hastily-built walls of the moat could be climbed as easily as a ladder. Waiting for Sen to join her, Ryô caught a glint of gold. Then the man and the richest washing tub in Japan floated away like a cork.

Ryô hadn’t been outside the castle proper in weeks. The pall of smoke was thicker, the air a rancid soup, the ground a lumpy rice pudding of half-frozen mud and cinders. A ruddy glow lit up the sky beyond the crumbled roofs of the abandoned houses. She took a step and stopped. Right in their path were the remains of a shop that had burned and fallen across the street.

“Sen!” Ryô objected.

Sen grabbed Ryô’s hand and set off at a brisk pace. Ryô bumped into charred posts and splashed through muddy water. She rubbed her cheek with the back of her hand and squawked in dismay, knowing she’d left behind a gritty streak of ash.

Now you look the part,” was Sen’s reply. She yanked the hood of the jacket over Ryô’s head and said sternly, for once dispensing with honorifics, “I bribed a rônin who once served my grandfather and has since joined the Ashikaga as a mercenary. His platoon guards a small gate on the south side of the city. I convinced him that you’re a servant of Princess Ryô fleeing her tyrannical mistress.”

If Ryô hadn’t been so stunned by the overwhelming bleakness of the damage right outside Yoshihiro’s castle, she would have laughed.

“Teamsters—a father and his two sons—will take you to Kishiwada. The Izumi border guards will respect Lord Yoshihiro’s seal.”

They approached one of the service entrances on the south side of the city, a gate that should be locked down. Sen sidled up to the gate and rapped once, twice, and once more. The door cracked open. An eye peered out. The door opened wider, revealing in the torchlight a soldier wearing sergeant’s colors.

Another flash of gold as the coins slipped from Sen’s hand to his. “The rest upon receipt,” she said in a muted voice.

One more soldier made rich in war by the folly of others. “C’mon,” he grunted, with a jerk of his head.

Realization dawned. Ryô was going on alone. Fear washed over her. “Sen!” she whimpered, her imagined martial discipline evaporating like snow on hot coals.

The steely resolve in Sen’s eyes momentarily faltered as well. She pulled Ryô close and embraced her the way she rarely did of late. “Wait in Kishiwada for the siege to break and the overland routes to open before proceeding to Mt. Kôya. The mountain roads are impassible at this time of year. I will feign your presence in the castle as long as possible. But you must leave now. Never travel by yourself. Never spend money like you have it. Don’t say a single word more than necessary. And bow.

Sen tucked the exit permit bearing Yoshihiro’s seal inside Ryô’s kimono jacket and whispered in her ear, “The purse in your left pocket goes to the teamsters when they deliver you to the Danjiri Inn. The one in your right covers the balance on your lodgings. Go.

She pushed Ryô away. The sergeant had neither the time nor the sentiment for long goodbyes and grabbed her by the arm. Ryô was too distraught to take offense at such lèse majesté and looked back over her shoulder. The one time she truly wanted to bow, she could not. It was Sen who did instead. It was always Sen.

The door closed. The bar dropped into place.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.