Tranquility and Suffering

“Mikoto?” Shindara stammered.

He took an involuntary step backward, but Mikoto proved faster. She seized his arm and ushered him away from the spectators.

“You refuse to see me or anyone,” she said, “and on the day that I’ve come to drag you out of the temple, you stage a public confession? Were you trying to provoke a violent mob?”

“I’ve survived worse,” Shindara chuckled, but he immediately regretted those words. Mikoto snapped an angry glare on him.

“You won’t survive me.”

As she led him across the courtyard, Shindara noticed the numerous dents and scrapes inflicted on her armor. He wrinkled his nose as he caught the putrid scent of death.

“Judging from the amount of blood and sweat, someone didn’t survive you.”

Mikoto struggled to maintain her serious composure, and despite her best efforts, she burst into laughter.

“How I missed your dry sense of humor.”

“I missed you, too, Mikoto. In fact, you’re back sooner than I expected.” Weaving through the crowded markets, they emerged into one of the sparse streets. “Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked, growing weary of the suspense. “You returned from Awazu Province, didn’t you?”

Mikoto nodded.

“So tell me, is Lord Yoshinaka dead?”

“Is that whining sympathy in your voice?”

“For the man who hunted me down and branded me a traitor among rebels? Not likely.”

“We cornered Lord Yoshinaka and his forces as he fled into Omi Province. He fell to an arrow when his horse became stuck in a muddy, half-frozen field. General Imai was found dead shortly afterward. It seems he committed suicide by leaping off his horse with a sword in his mouth.”

“What a grisly way to end,” Shindara said, but this time his voice was genuinely tinged with remorse.

“With Yoshinaka defeated, the dispute among leadership is resolved. The Minamoto clan is united once more against our true enemy.”

“There have been so many battles that I can’t remember how we ended up here.”

“Then allow me to remind you,” Mikoto said. “After we liberated the capital, Yoshinaka broke the peace secured by his cousin. When he learned that the Cloistered Emperor was supporting Yoritomo’s claim to the throne, he flew into a rage.”

Shindara knew that a Cloistered Emperor still possessed considerable influence, no matter how far removed he was from the Imperial Court. It was a term reserved for Emperors who willingly abdicated the throne and entered the Buddhist priesthood. To the best of Shindara’s knowledge, the man at the center of the dispute was named Go-Shirakawa.

“How did Yoshinaka retaliate?” he asked.

Mikoto cast a knowing smile in his direction.

“You’ll see.”

“And how is that?”

“Aren’t you wondering why I ambushed you at the temple? We have an appointment with the Cloistered Emperor himself. Go-Shirakawa has requested your presence.”

Shindara instantly felt trapped at the idea of meeting with a member of the nobility. He had no intention of being dragged into the shadow politics of a former Emperor.

“I can safely assume what he wants, and my answer remains ‘no.’ I already told you that I refuse to fight in this war.”

Mikoto glanced warily at him. “You still blame yourself for the Battle of Namida.”

“You know about the pain I caused better than anyone else. You were there. You survived when very few did.”

The samurai fell silent as if she was recalling her nightmarish experience.

“You weren’t the only one at fault. As far as I’m concerned, Hrioshango is responsible for the predicament we find ourselves in today… and you would be wise to remember that.”

“Why?”

“Because more people have been asking about what happened on that terrible night. Politicians are seeking answers and they want someone to blame. In fact, that incident is precisely what Go-Shirakawa wants to speak to you about.”

Shindara tensed.

No one knew about his role in the disaster except for Mikoto and his closest companions. He was certain that no one would reveal how he nearly ushered in a world of plagues and darkness.

Wracked with questions, he followed Mikoto to a wide street lined with willow trees. Also known as Suzaku Avenue, it flowed in a straight line through the city. Ordinary peasant homes weren’t allowed anywhere near the central artery of Heian-kyō. It was dominated instead by government offices, landscaped gardens, vermillion bridges, and pavilions.

The prevalence of Chinese-style mansions suggested they were drawing closer to the residence of the Cloistered Emperor. As if to confirm his suspicions, Shindara spotted a sake brewery that only catered to the royal court.

He nearly jumped as Mikoto cried out beside him.

This,” she gestured, “is how Lord Yoshinaka retaliated.”

Shindara turned his head and observed the Imperial Palace--or, at the very least, what remained of it. “What in the eight hells…?”

Singed ruins awaited him instead of pleasant towers and pagodas. The most impressive and symbolic of the structures, the Great Hall, had been demolished. Shindara supposed the Emperor’s throne was lying somewhere underneath the collapsed roof and the scorched pillars.

Elsewhere, covered walkways had been reduced to skeletons of their former glory. Not even the religious shrines were spared from the destruction.

As Shindara gawked at the wreckage, Mikoto sighed beside him.

“Before Yoshinaka escaped, his mob swept through the city and set the palace aflame. Not to mention, he tried to abduct Go-Shirakawa.”

“It certainly bears Yoshinaka’s mark, doesn’t it? The last desperate act of a coward.”

“Agreed. No offense, of course, Tomoe.”

“Tomoe?” Shindara said, whipping around in search of the famed archer. He felt her captivating presence long before he saw her. She was a lethal combination of authority and charm who always dominated every room she set foot in.

Clad in robust armor, she wore a golden headdress ornamented with red tassels. Her crown harkened to her previous life of luxury and status, proudly bearing a crest reminiscent of a samurai lord’s helmet. Tomoe Gozen was equal if not superior to her military peers, as her skill with the longbow was revered on the battlefield. After all, mere months ago, she still commanded scores of Yoshinaka’s soldiers. Every one of them had been willing to die for her--and they likely would have if she hadn’t convinced them to switch their allegiance.

She ground to a stop before Shindara and Mikoto.

“He chose his path,” she said, her voice wilting with a hint of sadness. After a slight pause, a smile tugged at the corner of her lips and she fondly regarded Mikoto. “And I chose mine.”

Tomoe leaned in to kiss her, suddenly anxious for her lips.

“And I thought you said you wouldn’t miss me,” Mikoto teased as soon as she caught her breath.

Before Tomoe could reply, there was an eruption of crude laughter behind them.

“You should have seen how he died! By the gods!” Grinning madly and toting a large sword over his shoulder, Hachi sauntered toward them. He looked as delightful as ever, despite wearing the blood and filth of several recent battles. “I stood over him and shouted, ‘Lord Yoshi! Or is it Lord Kiso? Or Lord Yoshinaka? What should I call you? You have so many titles.’ And he screamed, ‘You damned bastard!’ I replied, ‘Not what I was expecting, but I think it’s fitting.’ And then I lifted my sword and--”

“Hachi!” Mikoto snapped.

“The blood, the screams, the broken bones, the sweat of the gods--”

Hachi!” Mikoto snapped.

“What?”

“He was still her--” She cast an apologetic glance at Tomoe. “--her husband. At least, he was at one point.”

“Oh… well, if it’s any comfort to you, he didn’t suffer. For very long. And whatever you heard about me parading his severed head simply isn’t true.”

“That’s all right,” Tomoe cringed, patting him on the arm as she passed by. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”

“I thought you said Yoshinaka fell to an arrow,” Shindara murmured, leaning toward Mikoto.

“That’s the official account.”