Serpent of Time

Chapter 6

Escape from Sakai

As Ryô and the sergeant approached the siege barricades, they drew envious looks from soldiers who assumed hers to be a lowlier profession. The sergeant did not reprimand them. Ryô fixed her eyes ahead and steeled herself from snapping at him and his uncouth subordinates.

“I hear the princess and her chief attendant are real tyrants,” the sergeant said with a jovial air of familiarity. As bad a day as it was for her, it had ended quite profitably for him.

Ryô swallowed a smile. Sen had done a good job painting her as a holy terror, forcing a poor servant girl to flee for her life. Her lady-in-waiting could make her feel better even when she wasn’t around.

The sergeant went on, “Never seen a fight but what a woman getting involved don’t make it worse.”

She nodded, though not in agreement with him. Sen was right. Princess Ryô as instigator and betrayer—that would be the story after this. The shogun and the Ôuchi clan will come looking for a scapegoat.

All around them were encampments and quartermaster’s tents and convoys of wagons, some pulled by actual oxen. What kept a siege alive, Ryô had learned, was logistics. No matter how much Yoshihiro hardened his defenses, he couldn’t fight something with nothing. The Ashikaga clan and its allies had the something.

Following the sergeant down a line of carts and wagons, Ryô came face to face with a swarthy teamster. He whisked her off her feet and tossed her onto a wagon bed, pushed and jimmied her like a sack of salt between the crates and covered her with empty rice bales.

She clasped her hands over her mouth and nose to keep from breathing in the chaff and sneezing. The sergeant barked out questions and knocked about the empty wagons, making a show of checking for treasures that might be smuggled out of Sakai to revive Ôuchi Yoshihiro’s fortunes at a later date.

It was a diversion. A few minutes later came a slap on the side of the wagon. They continued on their way.

The ox cart trundled down a low hill. Bouncing around on the back of the wagon—it was no palanquin—Ryô felt nauseous. She sat up. In the falling light, she could make out the Ashikaga banners fluttering above the palisades. Rising into the air beyond the city walls, lit up by the dirty amber light of the smoldering city, was Sakai Castle.

Ahead of them were the barrier gates into Izumi Province. Ryô scowled. Here were the Izumi troops supposedly rallying to support Yoshihiro, their ostensible governor. But their true loyalties lay with the Hosokawa clan, not these Ôuchi interlopers from Kyôto, who’d be gone soon enough.

A dark shadow leaned over the side of the wagon and hissed, “Get your papers ready. You’re ill.”

She lay down and put on a soon-to-swoon face. The cart came to a halt. She heard voices, something about heading to Kishiwada with a passenger.

“What’s wrong with the girl?” said one of the border guards.

“She ain’t feeling so good, you know?” said the driver.

A sick person from a besieged city was a good reason to keep things at arm’s length. The inspection was mostly done with the jabbing end of a scabbard.

“Where’s her papers?”

Ryô handed the exit permit over the side of the wagon. The guard pinched it cautiously between his thumb and forefinger and held it in front of a more bureaucratic-looking official, who raised a lantern and peered at the seal, not deigning to touch it himself.

The papers listed Ryô’s occupation as a lady’s maid and provided a rough description of her person. She had traveled to Sakai by palanquin and had never been to Izumi Province in her life, but bowed her head into the shadows to avoid recognition.

“Lord Ôuchi Yoshihiro’s seal is still good here,” the official said. “For now.”

Ryô’s cheeks burned. Even this nobody samurai knew Yoshihiro was doomed.

The official nodded. The guard gingerly dropped the papers into Ryô’s lap and waved them through. She tucked the papers inside her jacket and settled back on her rough bed. Out of sight of the barrier gate, though, she clambered off the back of the wagon. Her stomach couldn’t handle the bumping and jostling.

A middle-aged man and wife walked in front, leading the oxen. Two sturdy young men—Ryô assumed they were their sons—took up the rear. A family shipping and smuggling operation. They didn’t talk to her. She didn’t talk to them. The less they knew about each other the better.

As they traveled away from Sakai, convoys headed toward them. The Ashikaga army quartermasters had to feed a population equivalent to a third that of Kyôto on a daily basis. The operations went on around the clock.

The roads were dry and the ox cart made a steady two to three miles an hour. They reached Kishiwada by the hour of the dog, around ten o’clock at night. After another check of their papers, the oxen were stabled at the outskirts of town.

With Sakai blockaded, Kishiwada was the main supply port to the south. The city was like a miniaturized version of Sakai, the “high city” and its castle shrunk down to a few short blocks, the “low city” converted into rows of warehouses. The sentry fires and strings of lanterns and glowing windows turned the nighttime into dusk.

Looking more closely, shops and houses and inns could be spotted amidst the great piles of crates and rice bales.

The father said to Ryô, “Danjiri Inn, right?” He nodded to his sons. The taller of the two answered with a come-along jerk of his head.

They walked down the main thoroughfare of Kishiwada, a son in front, a son behind—making sure she was delivered to her destination and making sure she didn’t run off before the fee was collected.

Two hundred yards south of the castle, the trio turned east toward the bay. A hundred yards later they came to a halt in front of a narrow alley. When she stopped moving, Ryô realized how cold she was. She hugged her arms around her chest and hopped up and down. No one spoke. Finally it dawned on her that the next move was hers.

She reached inside her jacket. Her fingers were numb. It took her several clumsy tries to undo the pin. The purse fell into the older son’s palm with a dull jangle. He gave it a small toss, judging its weight, then counted the coins through the cloth with the nail of his thumb.

“Very well, then.”

Now that she thought about it, the purse must contain some personal article of hers—to be returned to the sergeant—that Sen would take as proof of life.

A pair of curt bows and they were gone. Ryô was alone. Truly alone. Sen wasn’t there to rescue her. The shogun’s henchmen weren’t waiting around the corner to haul her home. She had no smart retorts on her tongue, no brilliant plans coursing through her head, no daring-do in her heart.

So she started crying. It was an entirely reflexive response. She clenched her teeth to keep from sobbing but couldn’t hold back the tears. She hadn’t truly wept since leaving Yoshino. When anger and defiance no longer produced results, this was the final expression of her despair.

A firefly flitted down the street. The firefly turned into a lantern. The lantern illuminated the bald head and bright eyes of a monk. He was wearing a black robe over a white kimono.

“Are you lost, child? What is your destination?”

Ryô turned and blinked. “D-Danjiri Inn,” she stammered, catching her breath in a sniffling hiccup.

“You’re almost there.” He smiled reassuringly. “Come along,” he said, and set off down the narrow alley.

Ryô tagged along like an obedient duckling. Three doors down and to the left, there was the weather-worn nameplate. The monk stepped into the mudroom that doubled as the front foyer. “Gomen kudasai!” he called out in a soft but resounding voice.

A minute later, “Hai!” came the acknowledgment. A woman hurried down the hallway. She had on a hastily-tied yukata and was carrying a candle. “What is it, at this hour?”

The monk bowed by means of apology. “I seem to have stumbled across one of your borders.”

The women leaned over and held the candle in front of Ryô’s tear-stained face. “Ah, you must be Ume.”

At that moment, Ryô would have agreed she was Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. After another round of bowing, the monk bid them goodnight and left.

Ryô kicked off her geta and stepped into the hallway. That was as far as she got. The landlady held out her hand. Ryô retrieved the purse from her right pocket. In the faint light, she saw that “Ume” was written on the cloth. Plum. A common girl’s name. Sen must have meant it to be her alias.

The landlady juggled the purse as had the young man, nodded to herself, and led her up a narrow flight of stairs to a room hardly bigger than one of her wardrobes. Ryô didn’t bother making the bed. She crawled into the closet and burrowed beneath the futons and fell fast asleep.


Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.