Serpent of Time

Chapter 18

The Qi Men Dun Jia

Ryô and Sen weren’t roused from sleep. They were bodily tossed out of it. Gendô grabbed the ends of their futons and gave each a firm yank. The two women somersaulted onto the tatami with a pair of muffled shrieks.

“Uncle!” Sen exploded. Ryô landed in a crouch and glared up at him like an indignant (short-haired) cat.

“Good. You’re awake.” He handed Sen a cold rice ball and a cup of steaming green tea. “Eat up. We need to start planning. Koreya has arrived in Kii Province.”

“What?” Ryô cried in a small scream. Sen choked to keep from spitting out a mouthful of tea.

“I received a message from Yoshino. A company of soldiers led by Hatakeyama Koreya bivouacked in the town, questioned the residents, searched the temples and the palace. Reports have him working his way west along the river highway.”

“How—” Sen mumbled, indecorously stuffing the rest of the rice ball into her mouth.

“I don’t know. We shouldn’t be surprised. Any number of things could have tipped him off.”

Ryô’s thoughts flashed back to the brigands who’d stolen her jacket, common thieves who never imagined a connection between their victim and Hatakeyama Koreya—until she made it for them.

Sen gulped down the rest of the tea, handed her uncle the teacup and stepped behind the wardrobe screen to change. “We should send Princess to Jison Temple today.”

“Even if she made it there in one piece, Koreya’s outriders will secure the river towns, including Jison Temple, before she can be smuggled down river.”

Ryô said hesitantly, “I could claim sanctuary here.”

“And it wouldn’t be long until you were taken by force in the same manner,” Gendô said.

Sen uncharacteristically swore aloud. Startled, Ryô blurted out, “What about a compass circle?”

For a long moment, Gendô stared back at her, as if suddenly confronted by a talking dog. Then he spun around and scrambled into the adjacent room.

“A compass circle?” said Sen, casting a puzzled glance at her departing uncle.

“I—um—I heard it somewhere,” Ryô mumbled. You heard it from me, came a ringing in her ears, as if some thing was peeved at the stolen credit.

“What—?” Sen started to say again, when the priest burst back into the room holding a loosely-bound sheaf of worn rice paper. “The notebook of Abe no Seimei on the very topic,” he explained with a sly grin. “My time in Kyôto did not go for naught, you see. Though I can’t rightly recall what inspired me to make my own copy—”

“You mean the Heian Court diviner?”

“Perhaps the greatest master of Yin/Yang cosmology in history. He used a compass circle and a magic square to summon Kala Sarpa, the Serpent of Time, and sent the dragon forth to battle the enemies of the Fujiwara. When the Fujiwara were forced from power and the era of the shoguns began, the last of his disciples sealed the creature within the shores of Lake Biwa.”

“So we can summon the dragon and send it against the Ashikaga!”

The priest sighed the sigh of a teacher forced to explain the obvious to a thick pupil. “To start with, I am no Abe no Seimei. No, the secret weapon is time.

“Time?” Ryô didn’t follow.

“There isn’t anywhere in this world you can escape to. But there is a when.

Ryô narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. For a conversation she’d never had before on a subject she knew nothing about, it sounded strangely familiar. Sen took her silence as acquiescence and said dourly, “Don’t encourage him.”

“No, my overly tall niece, this is an excellent idea. You see, we only need to distract the little dragonfly’s pursuers from their quarry long enough to let her scoot away. We shall send Princess across time rather than across ground.

“How much time?” said Sen.

“Let’s see, let’s see—” The priest paced back and forth, flipping through the worn pages. “Ah, here we go.” He paused and read aloud: “The compass circle is known in Chinese metaphysics as Qi Men Dun Jia, also called the mysterious gate.” He stopped and said to his students, “You might be familiar with a plebian offshoot used by architects.”

“Oh!” said Ryô, “I know the answer to this one. You’re talking about Feng Shui.”

“How much time?” Sen asked again.

“Diviners ever since Abe no Seimei have doing their own calculations and—um—six hundred and thirteen years into the future.”

Ryô couldn’t hide the incredulous look on her face. Now she repeated Sen’s question, “How much time?”

“With a monastery of abacus-wielding monks at my disposal, I could calculate a more convenient number. At this juncture, 613 is the only one I have confidence in. It is a prime number, not to mention that the Kabbalah holds it to be the ultimate divisor of the universe.”

Ryô found her voice and said, “Never heard of the Kabbalah either.”

“The holy book of a people who live on the shores of a great sea far to the west of India. A century ago, a barbarian explorer named Marco Polo traveled to China. The Kabbalah was among a number of religious tomes he presented to the court of Kublai Khan. A translation by Yuan Dynasty scholars provides sufficient confirmation of my math to justify going forward.”

“But six hundred years?”

Gendô shrugged. “As the great diviner has written—” he began, adopting a pontificating tone that made his pupils giggle and cover their mouths.

The priest harrumphed and continued, “During the uncertain hours between the dusk and the dawn, when the stars cast a veil across human eyes and gods and ghosts walk unnoticed upon the earth, Kala Sarpa wends its way among the worlds. Whenever the sun conquers the day, or surrenders to the night, or hides itself in oblivion, all things are swept into the void.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you’ll have until dawn to get away from Mt. Kôya. As far as your enemies are concerned, you will have simply disappeared, like a fox spirit. But in those twelve hours, you’ll be able to sneak through Koreya’s cordon and into Jison Temple. Once there, you can again use time to stay out of his reach until it is safe to move on.”

“A fox spirit.”

“I’d buy it.” Sen peered at Ryô’s backside and frowned. “Where do you hide your tails? You must have at least a half-dozen.”

“Sen!” Ryô gave her a playful shove. “Anyway, I’m a dragon.”

Gendô shot them a disciplining glare. “When we build the compass circle, I’ll make the pagoda at Jison Temple the circle’s Feng Shui anchor. Stepping inside the Jison Temple pagoda will close the circle of time and again bind the serpent.”

“But in the meantime, if this really works, I’ll be playing hide and seek, bouncing back and forth between the present and the future.”

“You should hardly notice the difference, except that when you spring forward in time, Hatakeyama Koreya and his men will not be there.”

Both women nodded. Ryô said, “So when are we going to build the Qi Men Dun Jia?”

“Ah!” With an exaggerated flourish, Gendô unfurled another scroll and held it out, both arms stretched wide. “I have been perfecting this design for years. The time for its implementation has finally arrived. I give Koreya and his men a week to track you down here. We only have to find the pieces and put them together.”

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.