Yes, like George R.R. Martin, I too am still working hard on Volume 6 of my fantasy saga 😉 And just like Winds of Winter, it’s taking me much longer than I had hoped for. I had to do a massive rewrite of the first half of the book, and then life added its own share of delays… But now I have finally finished the new draft, and we seem to be back on track for a release this side of half-year!
The noblemen prison wing was packed to the limits. So many Mori Clan’s retainers had been arrested at the Terada-ya, that the guards had to cram them two each into a cell. Only one cell remained, at Koyata’s insistence, occupied by a single inhabitant.
It was to this cell that he was now leading his latest quarry.
“Here you are, Izumi-dono,” he said with a bow, showing the new prisoner in. Maki Izumi grunted and crossed the cell’s threshold.
“This is Miyabe-sama from Kumamoto,” Koyata introduced the cellmates. “I thought a pair of Southerners will get along.” He smiled and backed out. As soon as the grate slid shut, he rushed down the corridor, and up the stairs into another, secret hallway, hidden from view by a sliding wall with the painting of a pensive Butsu-sama, standing on the sea shore and putting a conch to his ear.
He shuffled quietly along the lightless hallway, to a location he had marked earlier. The hallway floor was pierced with small slits, covered with sawed-off bits of floorboards, at measured distances – one per cell; through those slits, Koyata was able to observe and listen in on everything that happened in the rooms below. He lay down and put his ear to the hole.
“…and what were you planning to do with it once you got to Edo?”
That was Master Izumi’s exasperated voice. Koyata smiled to himself – the plan worked perfectly. And he’d made it just in time to hear the juiciest part of the conversation.
“You know full well what our mission is,” Miyabe replied, snidely. “To free the court from the abominations that control it.”
“Fools,” scoffed Izumi. “Now your men will be captured, and the sword will fall into the Taikun’s hands.”
So it’s a sword…
“And I suppose you’d rather we sat quietly in Kumamoto and did nothing,” said Miyabe. “Let your Master do as he pleased.”
“Shimazu-dono is doing what he believes is best for Yamato.”
Koyata heard one of the men pace this way and that across the narrow confines of the cell. He pressed his eye to the slit – it was Miyabe, jumpy and agitated.
“Well I don’t trust anyone who’s dealing with one of them,” he said. “And don’t think I’d forgive him for what he did to Hosokawa-dono.”
“Dōraku is different,” replied Izumi. “We would be nowhere without him. Look, Miyabe-dono.” He put his hands together in an entreating gesture. “In the end, we both want the same. A bright, prosperous future for our country, without the Fanged pulling the strings and without the barbarians ordering us about.”
There’s that word again. The Fanged. Koyata had heard this name spoken, always in secret, a few times already during his stay in Heian, but he couldn’t figure out what it might mean.
“Shimazu just wants the throne for himself,” scoffed Miyabe.
“He may want to rule, but he’s not after the throne. We remain loyal to the Mikado.”
Loyal to the Mikado, huh… Just as Lord Matsudaira had predicted, the letter sent out by His Majesty Kōmei had been stirring up trouble. The daimyo should be loyal to the Taikun; not to whatever puppet occupied the symbolic throne in Heian’s Imperial Palace. Those were the rules – the rules that had been managing to prevent another Civil War for more than two centuries.
“Same difference,” said Miyabe.
Izumi raised his hands and shrugged. “If that’s what it takes… do you have a better candidate?”
“What about Mori?” asked Miyabe. “I heard his men are in town.”
“Chōfu is a lost cause,” said Izumi. “They tried, and they failed. Half of the retainers were brought into this prison tonight with me. Hear them now, wailing and cursing!”
He banged at the wall of his cell. A Chōfu samurai on the other side yelled at him in response – what, Koyata couldn’t hear.
“Yes! That’s right!” shouted Izumi. “Your little revolution is over before it’d begun!”
The man behind the wall yelled again, but Izumi ignored him and sat by the wall opposite. Miyabe lay down on the floor, with the straw pillow under his head.
“Izumi-dono,” he started, looking at the ceiling. Koyata prayed that he wouldn’t notice the slit – it was right above him. “Do you think we still stand a chance?”
“I don’t know, Miyabe-dono. I do know that Takashima-sama managed to destroy one of them in battle, and lived through it. And she’s only a girl, who’s barely come of age. Think of what real men, real warriors could do, with proper planning.”
Takashima! Koyata put a hand to his mouth to stop himself from gasping.
“How did she do that?” asked Miyabe.
“I did not get a chance to ask her, before those Aizu thugs took me away,” said Izumi. “I hope they got away safe.”
I’ve heard enough, Koyata decided. He covered the slit with the wooden plank, and headed back to the ground floor.
Koyata held his head in both hands, and rubbed his temples. “This is all giving me a headache,” he said, and took a chunk from the brown powder tablet he carried in a bamboo box at his waist. He had been ordering the medicine from Kiyō – it helped alleviate the stresses of his new job.
“So let me get this straight,” he said, after he finished chewing the medicine. “There’s a conspiracy of demons, living dead, who control the Taikun’s court and want to rule all of Yamato – and one of them was responsible for the abduction of Takashima Shūhan and Tokojiro Namikoshi from Kiyō?”
Tokojiro did mention some monstrous man in a red robe, torturing him… remembered Koyata. He had always assumed it must have been just another Rangakusha, corrupted and maddened by power…
Miyabe and Izumi exchanged glances and nodded. “I don’t know the other name, but if you’d speak to Takashima Satō-sama,” said Izumi, “she would confirm everything I told you.”
“And this… Dōraku, did you say? What is his role? Is he some other kind of demon?”
“No, no,” said Izumi. “He’s like the others, but – on our side. They call him the Renegade.”
“Or so he says,” added Miyabe, scowling. “All I know is that he used to be Mori-dono’s confidant, and then he betrayed him for Shimazu. I wouldn’t trust him with a blunt chopstick.”
Koyata swiped his hand across his face. “Do you have any proof of this?”
Izumi laughed, Miyabe rolled his eyes. “If we had, we wouldn’t be here,” said Izumi. “You think Shimazu-dono would just sit on a secret like this?”
“I do,” said Miyabe. “The old fox knows far more than he’s letting on.”
It was now Izumi’s turn to roll eyes. “That may be, but in this case we’re all just following hearsay. The only two Fanged anybody’s ever seen, and lived to tell the tale, are Dōraku-sama and the Crimson Robe. One of them is dead – the other in hiding.”
This was almost too much to take in. Koyata’s mind raced, as he struggled to connect the many pieces of puzzle he’d been gathering ever since the first incident in Kiyō. All the rumours, all the random bits of investigation, all the strange events he’d been hearing about… if a conspiracy of demons was the true explanation for everything, it certainly wasn’t the most far-fetched he’d ever come up with.
One thing he couldn’t still figure out.
“Why Heian?” he asked. “How does His Majesty fit into this?”
Miyabe looked at Izumi mockingly. “Yes, Izumi-dono, how does the Divine Mikado fit into Shimazu-dono’s plans?”
Izumi’s eyes darted to the sides, and to the ceiling. He knew, realized Koyata.
“Don’t worry, I made sure we are not being spied on.” He had the two noblemen moved to a separated cell, at the far end of the prison wing, and had checked twice that nobody would be able to use the floor slit without his permission. He hoped it was enough – though in Heian, everyone spied on everyone else.
“Let me preface this by saying that Nariakira-dono has the best Scryers in Yamato at his service. Even you’d agree on this, wouldn’t you, Miyabe-dono?” asked Izumi.
“I don’t know about best, but I’ve heard they are good,” agreed Miyabe.
“And those Scryers are all clear on one thing: the Mikado must be protected, at all costs. His life is in danger.”
Koyata scratched his head. “I know His Majesty and His Excellency are at loggerheads over the barbarian question… but that’s a bit much. The Taikun would never strike at the Imperial Capital. That would be attacking a God!”
Izumi raised his eye. “Do you forget your history? It happened before, and it will happen again. The Taikun’s army is heading for the city – and, for all we know, so do the barbarians. The Aizu are already in control. I fear the Chōfu forces were our last chance at securing the palace.”
Koyata stood up and turned their back at the samurai. He needed to think clearly, and their mocking, annoyed looks were getting on his nerves.
“Is there anything that can yet be done?” he asked.
“You… you would help us?” said Izumi.
“I must not be connected to this,” Koyata replied. “And you would have to stay here, to avoid suspicion.”
“That – that might work,” said Miyabe. “All we’d need is some sort of contact with the outside world.”
“I will let you know.” Koyata opened the grated door. “Tomorrow is the first day of Obon – I’ll be busy. But I will come back as soon as I can.” He stepped outside and shut the door. “I was not here. I heard nothing.”
The two noblemen nodded in unison.
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