5-4 Rokuta trudged back to his cell. Ribi was playing with the baby.
“Oh, you’re back,” she said.
Noting the moody tone of his voice, Ribi leaned forward with questioning look. “What’s going on?”
“Ribi,” Rokuta said, taking a seat, “do you think wanting a kingdom is the same as wanting the throne?”
Rokuta shook his head. “No, that’s no it. How to put it—I don’t know.”
“What brought this about?”
“Shouryuu said he wanted a kingdom. Nothing about being emperor or making the most of his rank and position. Just the kingdom. My sense is that it’s not the same thing as becoming emperor, one of the high and mighty. That’s why I gave him the throne.”
“Perhaps I was mistaken?”
“Taiho—what in the world—”
Rokuta plopped himself down on the bed. “Sorry. I’m just babbling.”
The skies were clear over the tiny fief hugging the shores of the Inland Sea. In an era that more often than not saw bloodstains washed away with more blood, the smell of death and gore from the ubiquitous battlefields swept in across the sea.
So Rokuta was the first one to notice something was amiss. Fresh blood was in the wind. Three days after that growing sense of unease first began troubling him, a body washed ashore. It was one of the fishermen who sailed out from the shores below the castle.
“What’s going on?” Rokuta asked Shouryuu. “You should know, if anybody.”
Shouryuu was sitting on the dock of the bay casting his fishing line into the water. “You know about the Murakami?”
“Like the Komatsu, they’re descendants of pirates with roots on the opposite shore. They serve the Kouno, but ever since the Onin War they’ve been tugging hard on the leash. Seems they’ve yanked themselves free and are roaming about at will.”
Rokuta’s eyes opened wide. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Hmm. The Murakami have long had their eyes on this place. Control the straits between here and there and they’ll control access to the Inland Sea. I expect an attack to come soon.”
“You’re going to run away? That’s what you said you’d do.”
Shouryuu said with a tight smile, “I told my father to accept the patronage of the Murakami but he’s a man who values his pride above all.”
“Then will this land will become a war zone too?”
Now Shouryuu laughed. “This is the only territory we’ve got. It’d be nice to have someplace to retreat to. Alas, there’s barely enough room here to swing a cat. However we once called ourselves a seafaring clan, we’d be facing down the famed In’noshima flotilla. The three Murakami clans are tight as thieves. If the battle turns against them, they’ll call on their brothers in Noshima and Kurushima.”
Shouryuu delivered his little lecture with the attitude of a bored professor. Rokuta frowned at him. “You talk as if it was happening to somebody else.”
“Kicking up a fuss about it won’t accomplish anything. Say we sidle up to the Oouchi and Suou and manage to stave off the Murakami onslaught. The Kobayakawa will then surely hit us in at our weakest point. Time to gird up our loins.” He grinned. “I haven’t got any sisters and daughters to marry off. That means no reliable allies with blood ties. We’ll have to prepare for the worst.”
“Aren’t you the heir? Wouldn’t you be the most at risk?”
“All the more reason,” Shouryuu blithely responded, “for you to pack your bags. Leave before hostilities break out. Go west. Find a place war hasn’t reached.”
Rumors of war spread like wildfire. Itinerant workers without houses or boats were the first abandon the fief. Shouryuu may have helped fan the flames to urge them on. He certainly stopped wandering around outside the castle. The fishermen going to sea armed themselves and stockpiled provisions on the small islands in the bay.
Despite the painful tension and the loathsome winds of war blowing all about, Rokuta resolved to stick around.
On one such day, a messenger came from the manor house to the fisherman’s shack where Rokuta was staying. He handed Rokuta some money and told him to flee for his life.
“The young master says there’s no reason for any children to die here who’ve got no ties to this place.”
Rokuta inquired about Shouryuu and was told he’d set off for the island forts early that morning.
“The young master is hard at work night and day. There’ll be no doubting his abilities after this.”
Holding the coins in his hand, Rokuta went down to the beach. From the rocky shore he scanned the nearby islands in the bay, the boats moored at the island piers. On the inlet side, they were building an anchorage for warships.
“What’s to come of all this?” The woman’s voice echoed from the shadows at his feet. Rokuta didn’t answer.
“Is he not the emperor?” Yokuhi pointed out the obvious, but Rokuta remained tightlipped. “Didn’t you leave Mt Hou and cross the ocean because the emperor was here?”
“If I did, I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Warships are gathering at that far island. If you stay here, Enki, you will be caught up in the conflagration.”
“I know.” Rokuta tightened his grip on the coins. “Yokuhi, Rikaku.”
“Yes,” came the formless answer.
“If it becomes necessary, protect Shouryuu. Stay out of the fight. Don’t kill any of the enemy. If worst comes to worst, grab him and take him to a safe place. I owe him. I cannot let him die.”
“Go. I have other shirei.”
“Yes,” came the voices of his servants.
Because Shouryuu was there for me when it mattered, he tried to convince himself. But he knew there was a lot more to it than that. If Shouryuu dies, what will become of En?
One voice assured him, These things always work themselves out.
Are you sure? asked another.
Did the Will of Heaven fall only on one man? If it did, then Shouryuu dying here meant that En would lose its emperor.
The fishermen and shopkeepers knew they had no chance of winning this battle. Rokuta could save Shouryuu alone, appoint him emperor, and take him back to En. But if that again brought war to En—he’d never let himself trust any creature who called himself an emperor.
Could Shouryuu really save En? He was equally capable of destroying En so thoroughly it would never rise again.
“Why must I be the kirin?”
He embodied the will of the people but could not hear what they had to say. If only he could ask those who remained behind in that shattered land what he should do.
The fighting began in earnest barely three days later. The Komatsu forces fought a good fight against the ships surrounding the forts. Rokuta and the others who’d stayed behind watched from the coast. As long as the island garrisons held, the Murakami would not invade the land.
On the sixth day, a war cry rent the air behind them. Charging over the mountains circling the bay, the Murakami forces attacked from the rear.
Flames engulfed the watchtowers ahead and behind them. The chaos spilled down the hills, crowding Rokuta and the others onto the shore. They barely managed to pile into a fleet of small boats as the manor house was overrun. Fire climbed the corner turrets. Battering rams caved in the main castle gate.
Shouryuu’s father, the ruler of the Komatsu domain, took to his heels and died as he ran. Shouryuu’s inherited his father’s pirate kingdom even as the enemy closed in from all sides.
A mere four days remained until the Komatsu clan would disappear from history.