“Stay alert,” Mikoto whispered to Shindara. “The fort is too quiet for my liking.” As if to reject her suspicions, the castle gates groaned and juddered open. A hundred samurai on horseback rumbled out of the garrison. They flowed outward like a tide of gleaming armor, rushing swiftly toward Mikoto and her rebel companions.
The man spearheading the riders was dressed in a sleeveless surcoat laden with elaborate motifs and weaving trails of silk. Beneath the expensive layers, he wore black and gold armor fit for a high-ranking samurai.
A score of mounted bowmen flanked him as he closed the gap to Mikoto’s army. The thunder of hooves abated and he came to an erratic halt, jerking hard on his reins.
“State your intentions,” the man demanded, wheeling his horse around as it snorted nervously. “Why do you approach my castle so heavily armed?”
“Lord Yoshinaka, we come on behalf of your cousin.”
It was clear to Mikoto that there was no love lost between the blood kin. As soon as she uttered the name, Yoshinaka directed a bitter scowl at one of his samurai.
“Did you hear that, General Imai? The future Emperor sends his regards.”
“We’ve come to warn you,” Mikoto said forcefully. “You’ve dealt a severe blow to the Taira and now they see you as a problem. An army is already on its way here.”
If Yoshinaka felt threatened in any way, he concealed it effortlessly. In fact, he didn’t seem surprised by the news of an imminent attack on his fortress.
“How many?” he asked.
“Sixty thousand strong. They’re being led by a fiend of a man. Lord Sadato.”
“Sadato… yes, I’ve heard of him. The Scourge of Nara or so they say.”
Mikoto could tell from the sneer on his face that he wasn’t daunted by the warlord. On the contrary, he seemed hungry for a clash between their egos. He snapped out of his battlefield reveries at the sound of Mikoto clearing her throat.
“You knew they would come for you?”
“I knew it was only a matter of time,” he replied, scanning the peasants as they continued to frantically dig. “Still, I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.” Growing bored of their menial labor, he turned to Mikoto with renewed interest. Eager to make an impression, he urged his horse closer until he towered above her. “You must be quite the warrior if my cousin sent you here.”
“A general, actually.”
“I see,” he said, his eyes lingering on more than just her sword. “And who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?”
“Mikoto?” he echoed, his voice incredulous. “The same one who survived the massacre in the Hakone Mountains? And the Battle of Yahagi River?”
Mikoto dipped into a slight bow. “I’m at your service, my lord.”
Yoshinaka grinned in delight.
“Your exploits on the battlefield are the tales of valor! And who could forget how it all began? How you rose from nothing to become this warrior goddess among men.” Mikoto smiled and indulged his flattery, even if it made her cringe under the surface. His enthusiasm was endearing in a child-like way, if not somewhat pathetic. She was less forgiving of the smirk on Shindara’s face, however, and it took all of her restraint not to swat him. Meanwhile, Yoshinaka seemed as though he could hardly contain himself.
“Anyone who could do what you’ve done… it’s inspiring,” he rambled. “You’re welcome at my castle--and your men, too, of course.”
“Thank you, my lord. You’re too kind.”
Yoshinaka nodded and ushered them toward the yawning gates of his keep.
“Please, my retainers will see you all to the garrison.”
A swift motion from Mikoto sent her soldiers on the march again. She noticed all of her men averted their eyes out of respect for Yoshinaka—all but one. She was aghast when she saw the look on Shindara’s face.
He stared directly at the lord, his eyes hardened with disdain. He refused to show any sign of submission. It appeared that slight wasn’t lost on Yoshinaka either, who held his rapt gaze.
Rattled by what she just witnessed, Mikoto followed the procession of exhausted troops into the fort. It was no secret that Shindara disliked authority, whether it happened to be the Imperial Court or the nobles who reigned over large swathes of land. However, she wondered if there was something else at play besides his animosity for the elite. He’d been behaving in a strange manner ever since he returned from the Yomi. Three years may have passed since they last met, but he wasn’t as she remembered. Shindara was different now. She just wasn’t sure what that “different” entailed.
Mikoto was confident the answer would come to her in time, but in the meanwhile, she would focus on the coming siege. She swept past several guards and found a ladder leading to the top of the outer wall of the fort. Climbing one rung at a time, she emerged beneath a hazy, gray sky. The clouds hinted at impending rain. A cool breeze teased her hair as she took stock of the castle defenses.
Hiuchi Castle was large enough to enclose a decent-sized village, and from her vantage point, it nearly resembled one. The impregnable courtyard was dense with small structures lumped together from wattle, daub, and thatch. Stables and a forge were built in close proximity along the eastern wall. Perhaps she would stop by the smith tomorrow to have the dents hammered out of her breastplate. Repairing the battered edge of her sword couldn’t hurt either.
As impressive as the garrison was, nothing compared to the lavish structure to the north. Lord Yoshinaka’s residence consisted of a central complex flanked by living quarters and subsidiary halls for servants. She watched as attendants scurried back and forth between the mansion and the storehouses filled with rice and grain.
Mikoto was joined by the thud of armored footsteps on the wooden ramparts. She turned to greet her guest, and somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see Yoshinaka standing there.
Now that his helmet was removed, she had a clearer view of his face. His hair was pulled back in a topknot and he sported a neatly-trimmed beard on his chin.
He smiled at her, but otherwise he didn’t say a word. Mikoto could feel him watching her as she observed the laborers digging in the valley below. She squinted as more soldiers dragged felled trees into place.
“I see what you’re planning.”
“Clever, isn’t it? I’m rerouting the Nomi and Shindo Rivers to create a lake. It occurred to me after we surrounded the fort with palisades.”
“And now you’re dismantling them to build a dam.”
“Exactly. The Taira won’t be able to reach the outer walls, and they won’t have any idea about the dam. Not to mention, we have plenty of supplies to outlast a siege.”
“You’ve been planning this for quite some time, haven’t you?”
“I knew the Taira would come for me. Still, Lord Sadato couldn’t have picked a worse time to attack. His men will starve to death outside our walls or my archers will pick them off as they try to cross the moat.”
“Your gamble might just pay off.”
Yoshinaka nodded as he scoured the valley. His eyes darted back and forth as if he was already envisioning thousands of Taira trekking through the mountains.
“Speaking of gambles, how long have you been working with my cousin?”
Mikoto grew tense. She’d already had this conversation too many times with Shindara. She wasn’t looking forward to another barrage of questions about their would-be Emperor. Yoshinaka chuckled as she held her tongue.
“I’m only trying to warn you,” he crooned. “I would be careful about who you place your trust in.”
“Yoritomo has been a steadfast ally and a friend to me for years.”
“Well, maybe you’ll rethink your loyalty when I tell you the truth about his side of the family. Life has always been a volatile mix of power and politics within the Minamoto clan, just a spark away from conflict. I learned this firsthand when my cousin killed my father.”
“Yoritomo couldn’t have—”
“Not Yoritomo. It was his brother, Yoshihara. We share the same blood, but it didn’t stop him from craving more power and seizing it—even from his own kin.” He allowed himself a chuckle as he idled near the battlements. “I was only a child when the massacre began. I was too young to understand anything. I only knew that my father was gone and that I had to flee into the mountains to avoid the same fate.”
Mikoto chewed her lip as she tried to strike a delicate balance with her reply. “You persevered against the odds and you’ve built yourself into a mighty lord. You should be proud of everything you’ve achieved.”
Yoshinaka nodded, but the sadness was slow to ebb from his eyes.
“I deserved more.” He leaned over the ramparts and observed the ice-capped mountains that marked the edge of his domain. “I could have reclaimed my father’s lands, but who do you suppose stood in my way? It wasn’t my father’s killer. It was Yoritomo.” His knuckles whitened and he gripped the edge of the wall. “It was his army that stood in my way. Musashi Province belongs to me--and he had no right to call it his own. Tell me, how am I supposed to accept him as my leader? He doesn’t respect you or me. He only sees us as his weapons and shields, not as his allies. We’re a means to an end.”
“Yoritomo wasn’t there when your father died,” Mikoto refuted, “and he didn’t strike the killing blow. Right now, we’re facing something much bigger than a family power struggle. We’re standing on the edge of real tyranny. Instead of sulking over a province, you should be asking yourself another question: what kind of clan forces the Emperor off the throne and props up an infant child in his place?”
His chest heaving, Yoshinaka stared off into the distance. Mikoto could tell by the deep lines in his brow that he was still dwelling on his cousin, but it didn’t stop her from bestowing one last piece of advice.
“You don’t always get what you want, especially when you want it. And in the end, what you want might not be what you need.”
“Then tell me, why am I undeserving of the same rank and prestige as my cousin? Honestly, have you seen some of these fools who call themselves nobles? It’s a miracle they haven’t lost everything to the famine. I’ve managed to keep my people fed while most of the lands are spoiled and rampant with disease.”
“You’ve done much with the Kiso Mountains. You should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
“You say that as if I should be grateful… as if this is all I will ever amount to.” Yoshinaka deflated with a sigh. “I will always be fond of these mountains, but it’s not my father’s land. This has never been enough for me. I deserve more than a gloomy fortress in the cliffs. I could be so much more. Japan could be so much more if they would only give me a chance.”
“And what is your vision for Japan?”
“A land is nothing without its people, and I understand that better than the Imperial Court. I’ve seen fields wither and die because of lazy leadership. The nobles care nothing for the farmers that keep their bellies fed. I would ensure their prosperity instead of taxing them into the grave.”
Before Mikoto could put in another word, Yoshinaka elaborated on a slew of political aspirations, everything from overhauling the land tax to reorganizing the provincial governors. Mikoto wondered how much of it was sincere. With the right question, maybe she could glean the truth from his fantasies.
“What if you never get your land back?”
Yoshinaka’s face clouded over as he surveyed the soldiers digging the trenches below.
“Then I’ll die with my back against the wall. Fighting both the Taira and my own family.”
Mikoto could sense a lost cause when she heard it. There was only so much she could say to guide him, but he had a twisted logic all his own. She pushed off the battlements and turned to walk away. To her surprise, Yoshinaka seized her arm.
“My cousin doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he growled into her ear. “He’s drowning in petty squabbles while we fight his battles in the mud. Is that the kind of man you want as your Emperor?”
“I’ll take whoever can defeat the Taira.”
“Then you would be wise to side with me.”
“So it’s true. You do covet the throne for yourself.”
“Does that bother you? Who’s to say I wouldn’t make a better leader than my cousin?” Mikoto didn’t reply. “Together, we can become the architects of a new Japan, one that will emerge stronger than anyone could have dreamed of.”
As quickly as the words left his lips, he froze like a deer catching the scent of its predator. A nervous energy washed over him as he peered into the courtyard below. Shindara happened to be passing by the soldiers preparing to outlast the siege.
The scribe slowed to a stop and looked up at the ramparts. Yoshinaka’s hand immediately recoiled from Mikoto when he saw the look in his eyes. He could practically sense the animosity emitting from him.
Shindara lingered for a moment longer before he was satisfied. He meandered to the other end of the courtyard. As for Yoshinaka, he seemed on the verge of fleeing to his private villa.
“Is he the one they call the Obsidian Wraith?” he asked.
“Yes, but I prefer to call him Shindara.”
“I don’t like the look of him. Can’t you feel it? It’s almost like the air turns to tar around him.”
“Did I just hear a quiver in your voice?” Mikoto taunted. Yoshinaka wasn’t used to a soldier addressing him so informally, especially a woman. “He’s an amazing warrior, but he’s also a man. He’s flesh and blood, the same as you and me.”
“You must think I’m a fool. His legend grows bolder by the day. They say he eliminates military outposts, rescues villagers, and tears through yōkai… even though he’s a demon himself.”
“You see a demon where I see a friend. And I trust him more than anyone I know.”
Yoshinaka dismissed her affection with a shake of his head.
“It just doesn’t make any sense. No one has seen him in nearly three years. What in the hells has he been doing all this time? Where has he been?” With a cunning sneer, he brought his face closer to hers. “Or would it be more appropriate to ask what is he now?”
“What do you mean?”
“That man isn’t human, but you claim he isn’t a demon. Is that what you like in your man? A little demon mixed in?”
“Actually, I prefer a little demon mixed in with my woman.” Yoshinaka turned an incredulous stare on her. “Don’t look so surprised,” Mikoto smirked. “You’re not meant for me and you never will be.”