By Joe Jablonski
Osumi Province. Southern Japan. 1242
General Yoshitsune Minamoto stood on the edge of the battlefield, flanked by an army 2,000 strong and waiting for anything. It was just past noon on a day unseasonably cold for this late in winter, with grey cloud that loomed on the horizon, promising of an afternoon snowstorm. But Minamoto’s concerns weren’t on the weather. They were on the reports of the mechanical abominations slowly creeping their way here from Edo.
It’d been three years since the Child Emperor waged war on the samurai class, starting with the ordered execution of the Shogun. The ensuing rebellion of the Daimyo came swift and hard but they never stood a chance.
With the coming dawn of combustion technology and the following industrial revolution, His Imperial Majesty, Mitsuhito, had built a new army, deeming the old ways outdated and obsolete. Tradition had been traded for technology, honor for convenience.
In the following years the rising technology spread across Japan like an infection. Mitsuhito’s imperial army killed all that opposed it. Now, only the southern provinces kept to the old ways, killing in kind all who brought the edicts of the emperor.
It was insubordination that would not be tolerated.
Under his new general, Hojo Shigetoki, the Emperor sent the full might of his army to bring down the growing insurrection once and for all.
And here on the beaches of Osumi, the last Daimyo had set up his last stand. This collection of samurai were the last of an endangered species, warriors of the old ways hunted down and executed by the handful.
For these final few this was about a way of life. This was about honor.
Now, Minamoto watched as a scout approached fast on horseback, composing himself as the young uruwashii rode in close. “The imperial army is just over the hill. They should be here any minute,” the scout said through hurried breaths.
Taking in the report with only a nod, Minamoto signaled his men to ready themselves with a gesture. He was a man of few words and fewer smiles. Though meek in appearance, he had proved his competency as both a warrior and a general many times over. Secretly he hated to shed another man’s blood. Even so, he did it with a kind of reckless abandon that few could match, often putting himself in harm’s way to save the life of another. He never hesitated, never faltered. This reputation had earned him the fierce loyalty of those who fought under him.
With the sounds of preparations echoing all around him, Minamoto absently rubbed an old scar just below his eye he received in some battle long past as he attempted to calm shattered nerves. It took everything he had to keep from empting his stomach, but over the years he had learned how to maintain the appearance of a leader, with nothing but overwhelming confidence despite any odds. The trick was to think of anything else.
A dull rumble rode on the wind, followed by steady monotone of metal on metal friction. Just on the edge of vision, a large shadow rolled into the clearing on a duel set of tracked wheels. Standing six foot high, a curved expanse of wood domed from the front, held together by long steel cords bolted into place with rivets. A brass canon protruded out a small hole cut from the middle—a Dragon of Edo.
Minamoto gasped silently at the sight of it, careful to maintain his composure. He had heard rumors of these machines, but none of the descriptions inspired the sheer awe he felt at this moment.
“Hold steady,” he yelled across the line. The words were as much for himself as any of his men. He had every right to be nervous.
The steel monstrosity quickly multiplied until the entire beachfront was lined with over two dozen of the mechanical beasts. Filling the gaps between the tanks stood thousands of men holding long barreled single shots. The tension between both sides charged the air like electricity. A strange stillness shook Minamoto at his very core.
He and his men could only watch as the cannons of the tanks slowly cranked in their direction, pivoting on large sets of interlocking gears, all coordinated in perfect unison.
Finally, letting out a long held breath, Minamoto made a show of pulling his weapons and ordered the attack. The sleek sound of swords being drawn rang out across the lines as samurai rushed forward in waves, scream with the fury of three years of pent up aggression.
Across the field, the movement of the cannons stopped. Time stopped. Then, with the flash of the barrels and a sound that tore through the air like thunder, everything turned to chaos . . .
The battle had been a slaughter.
Minamoto slowly opened his eyes and gazed up at a sky shrouded in thick, gray clouds. Three inches of snow covered everything and there was a silence in the air like cemetery. Pain came instantly, a steady burn radiating from where two projectiles had opened up a new pair holes just below his ribcage.
He looked around in a daze, his sight dim and unfocused. Vermillion lumps, buried deep beneath the winter-mix marked the places where each of his men had fallen. Nothing moved. It took a long minute to realize a broken sword was still held tight in his grip.
Discarding the useless blade, Minamoto tried to stand. Pain kept him grounded. With visible effort, he rolled to the right and was met with the face of his Daimyo. The man stared back at him with lifeless eyes behind a twisted grimace frozen forever in time. Only his head remained.
Within those dead eyes Minamoto saw the hundreds of years of culture and tradition—everything he has ever known, believed and loved since birth—reduced to a memory.
He collapsed back to the ground, holding back barely contained tears and cursing the fact that he was still alive to experience the humiliation of this failure. For hours he lay there, surrounded by the bodies and ghosts of his men, wishing for a death he was too weak to perform and praying for an end to the pain.
Quick flashes of the battle replayed in his head over and over again, each replaced by another, too fast for emotion: the ground erupts all around him, spraying up fragments of sand, debris and body parts. The uniform spark of distance mussels light up the horizon like a string of fireflies. The shuttering of samurai as bullets, invisible to the naked eye, tear through their armor. Men begin to fall back but are quickly cut down by rapid fire. He calls for the line to hold as he charges but before the sentence is completed, sprays of red mist explode from his chest and he hits the ground rolling. Slowly, everything becomes nothing…
He hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way across the battlefield.
Now centered amongst the carnage, he closed his eyes as if the lack of sight could push away all dejection. Consciousness began to fade in a slow trickle. In the distance he could hear the repetitive thud of footsteps crushing through the snow with an uneven gait. He tried to concentrate on the sound of it as blackness took over but he couldn’t hold on for long.
When Minamoto came to again, he was laying flat in the back of a cart moving slowly down a road made of red stone bricks. The jostling of the uneven wheels did little for his injuries. His chest was wrapped tightly in bandages and the pain had subsided somewhat, but not enough for comfort.
A gentle snowfall drifted silently through the limbs of leafless trees which hovered eerily above him.
“So you’re still alive,” said a voice from somewhere unseen.
Minamoto sat up quickly and on reflex, reached for a sword that wasn’t there. An old man sat at the front of the cart, holding a pair of reigns hooked up to a large, black horse. A white topknot was tied at the top of his head with not a hair out of place. The blue,
dragon-covered, silk Kimono the man wore suggested he came from influence, despite the rickety cart he drove.
“Who are you?” asked Minamoto a little more harshly than intended.
The old man chuckled and half turned back to him. A neatly combed beard stretched across his wide face and a pair of black goggles was suctioned tight over his eyes. Burn marks, long healed, covered the surrounding skin. “In time, my friend. First, there is something I wish to show you. Come, have a seat up here.”
Reluctantly, Minamoto struggled his way forward and settled down next to the old man with a pained grunt.
The glint of metal caught in his peripherals. He looked over to see what was left of the old man’s left leg hanging out from beneath his Kimono. The appendage ended in a stump just above the kneecap. The rest had been replaced with a prosthetic; a hydraulic piston centered between a set of rods wrapped with springs over a knee joint which functioned with the use of twin gears. It was tied to his thigh with a thick, leather strap and bolted into place deep into the flesh.
“So you’re one of the emperor’s men I take it,” Minamoto said, nodding towards the ersatz leg.
“But you use his technology.”
“I use what has given me the ability to walk again.”
“It seems to me that the ability to walk again is a trivial thing compared to all the death that technology has caused.”
“Oh you can’t blame the technology, only the man who wields the power behind it. I myself believe a balance between the old and the new can be achieved.”
“I’ve seen nothing but pain and suffering come of it,” said Minamoto. Visions of dead samurai danced in his head.
“Is it any different than before?” He let the question hang for a moment.
Minamoto said nothing.
The old man continued, “War has been going on since the beginning of man, no matter the belief’s behind it or the technology used to carry it out. Besides, I’m sure you’ll see plenty more bloodshed before this is over.”
The old man jerked the reins and the cart rolled to a stop at a wooden shack placed five feet in front of two steel rails which stretched out in both directions. A man stood outside the shack holding up a wooden circle, painted bright red.
A high pitch screech screamed in the distance, getting louder by the seconds. In minutes, six large, metal containers sped into view, each connected to the next with interlocking clasps. The first was little more than a giant engine wrapped in layers of curved steel. On top was a detailed wooden carving of a dragon’s head. Its face pointed straight up and a plumb of thick, black smoke bellowed from its months.
The train passed in a blur, the shockwave of its velocity sending up clouds of swirling dust in its wake.
The old man pointed in its direction as it faded off into a speck in the distance. “You see that train? It brings rice to an area in the east which is in the middle of a famine. Ten years ago, without the emperor’s technology, those people would’ve died. But the emperor’s help came at a price. The region he’s saving was forced to sign away their freedom to a life working the oil fields.” He paused a long minute and took on an air of contemplation, then: “This country lost its soul. But a single act can change everything.”
“I don’t think I understand your words,” said Minamoto sensing an agenda.
“Against His Imperial Majesty?” Mimamoto couldn’t believe this man would speak so freely to a stranger. He was a samurai through and through, his every breath dedicated to the ways of the sword and everything the old ways represented. For a man like him, such a suggestion was the worst kind of heresy, even if he believed the emperor to have lost his way.
The old man didn’t miss a beat. “Do you really think a ten year old child locked up in a palace his entire life controls this country?”
“He has been ordained by the heavens to rule.”
“The samurai have always been a naive group. No, I have another man in mind.”
“And I suppose you want me to kill him,” said Minamoto, forcing out of the man where he knew this was heading.
“That’s the idea, General,” the old man looked at Minamoto for the first time without a flicker of emotion on his face. “I hear your skills with a sword are unmatched.”
Minamoto flinched at the use of his title. So many questions burned within his mind. Only one came out: “Who?”
“I’ll tell you as soon as I show you what I intend to show you.”
“You believe my sword comes so easy?”
“I believe an example needs to be made. To the emperor, the concept of the samurai is little more than a foreign concept. He has never seen an act of true honor. Maybe to know a samurai, to see one in action, will teach him strength.”
“Don’t think I’m so easily manipulated, old man. Your offer holds no appeal for me. What I want—what I’ve always wanted—is a small measure of peace at the end of my life. I’ve seen enough blood.”
“We’ll see. For now, just relax and let you’re wounds heal up a bit. We’ll be there by dusk.”
Dusk burned pastel in the sky.
The terrain had long become familiar, the surroundings of a home with a wife and son that Minamoto hadn’t seen in six years. But now, everything was different.
Just past the tree line the sun was low on the horizon, masked by a thin silhouette rising forty feet into the sky. The creaking of gear and piston was raucous. None of the usual commotion of human habitation could be heard.
Dread slowly crept up Minamoto’s spine, drowning out all previous anticipation. The old man became somber as the road led them into the large clearing where a village once was.
Minamoto’s eyes went wide. The houses had been reduced to cinder and rubble. The farmlands were stripped of all vegetation. Lining the center street were a series of hastily constructed wooden shacks. A string of paper globes glowing with contained fire hung in front of each. Not a person was in sight.
On the far edge of the village was a mechanized contraption of pipes, belted wheels, and screaming pistons surrounded by a grid of steel girders. A large platform was elevated twenty feet in the air, held up by wooden poles as large as tree trunks. All of it was covered in a viscous, black liquid. At the base were round, metal barrels stacked one on top of the other.
Minamoto climbed down from the cart, wounds be damned. For a second, the shock of what he was looking at and everything it symbolized was too surreal for emotion.
He turned back to the old man, his eyes pleading for a miracle. “What happened? Who has done this?”
“About a year ago a fresh vein of oil was found flowing underneath the ground here. By decree of the imperial Regent, the villagers were ordered to relocate. They resisted. They died, down to the last man, woman, and child.” The old man’s tone was maddeningly calm.
“I don’t believe you,” said Minamoto. It was a whisper.
“Your belief doesn’t change the reality of it.”
Minamoto yelled his wife’s name off into the distance, knowing deep down he’d never get an answer. Ayumi was gone forever and all he had left was his guilt.
Men began to emerge from the small shacks, watching the commotion from a distance. They all looked fragile as if on the point of breaking with sunken cheeks and eyes, and skin that looked to be permanently stained with oil. Not a murmur passed through the crowd as they eyed the two new comers.
Minamoto had yet to notice them. His teeth were clenched to the point of cracking and far graver concerns were clouding his mind.
Born after his last departure, his son only existed in the few letters of correspondence he and Ayumi had sent each other over the last few years. He always dreamed of a quiet life here with his family but the call of duty had beckoned him away to battle after battle, war after war, each more pointless than the last. For this reason alone his marriage to his wife had been a strained one at best, but though he always promised her that each campaign would be his last, he never delivered. Now, after a lifetime of service to a system that betrayed him, his last chance at peace had been ripped away.
The old man, ignoring Minamoto’s contemplation, didn’t relent. “Sometimes the dead can teach us more than the living. Learn their lessons and use it to redirect that anger.”
Minamoto diverted from the old man’s stare. If he would have responded, he would have exploded.
Slowly, he headed across the ashen grounds leaving the old man to his cart and his ranting. The swarm of laborers parted wordlessly to give him a path, all careful to keep their distance as he walked through. A sharp wind blew through the shacks sending up a dusting of ash and winter-mix and a cold that burned on Minamoto’s exposed skin.
A stone well was centered in the village, newly capped with a pumping device. Water made easy with just the twist of a crank. It was Minamoto’s dejection made visual, a representation of everything the Emperor killed for.
In a fit of irrationality he attacked it, slamming his fist in rapid succession into the side of the sleek metal tank and screaming like a madman. Chunks of flesh ripped from his knuckles with every blow. Before now, his hatred of the new ways were based on principle, but now it was personal.
Minamoto dropped to his knees finally unable to stop the tears from rupturing from his eyes. He was completely overwhelmed by all the pain and despair of everything lost.
The gathered throng formed a circle around him and one by one, bowed to him.
He loathed every one of them; if he had a sword, he would have killed every one of them. He didn’t want their respect, their sympathy; these peasants who sold their heritage for the new ways without hesitation.
The old man walked up behind him, his ersatz leg hissing with every step.
“I should have been here,” Minamoto muttered back to him.
The old man stopped beside him. “Maybe, but there is more than one way to regain honor,” he said, dropping a pair of katana on the ground in front of Minamoto.
“I was ready to die. I earned that right. Why have you shown me this?” Minamoto couldn’t tear his eyes from the dual blades.
“To show you the future of this land, a future only you can change. The imperial Regent controls this land with fear and blood, and uses his technology to enforce his rule. You need to free the emperor this burden, allow him the freedom to find the strength needed to rule with the wisdom of his ancestors. Do as one man what an entire army could not.”
“Just leave me to my shame.”
The old man rounded on him and ripped off his goggles, throwing them to the ground. He didn’t have eyes. In their place were sockets filled with hundreds of tiny gears. Thin black membranes acted in the stead of pupils.
His entire demeanor had changed. He was no longer feeble or weak. He was full of strength; full of the kind of conviction any soldier would follow and die for in battle. “I was samurai once. I lost my leg and my eyes fighting for the emperor’s father. My new replacements came at a price as well. Men like you and I were bred to selflessly serve the people of this country. Now, stop thinking of your own shame and serve.” The look on his face was hard as steel. His voice was a low rumble.
The old man picked up the swords off the ground and shoved them into Minamoto’s arms. “That track will take you straight into the heart of Edo. They won’t be expecting you. The Regent’s quarters are on the top floor of the imperial palace just next to the throne room. A lift in the center of the building is the only way up.”
Breathing heavily, the old man turned to walk back to his cart.
Minamoto stared at the swords a long minute, his thoughts only on Ayumi and the son he never knew. In these last seconds, the face of every man he had ever lost played through Minamoto’s head in a rapid precession finally ending with Ayumi. The last time he saw her he was on his horse wearing his full battle armor. She was cleaning laundry in an old stream with her back to him, refusing to acknowledge his departure. He hadn’t even known she was pregnant then.
Fury replaced despair. The seed of hatred for the Regent had been planted deep and he knew what must be done. There, kneeling in the ashes of everything he held sacred and blinded by rage, a decision was made.
Minamoto turned and called out to the old man, “Wait, you never told me your name.”
The old man paused for only a moment and smiled. He knew he had him. “Please forgive my rudeness if I don’t give one.”
Edo wasn’t what it used to be.
The locomotive screeched to a stop at a large station placed just outside the stone walls surrounding the capital city. The first flowers of spring were beginning to bloom. A full moon painted everything a soft blue. Even at this late hour workers swarmed the docks, moving and stacking large crates filled with various goods to be distributed across the country.
Minamoto stepped from the train onto a large wooden platform, fingering the hilt of his sword where it was hidden underneath a long, dusty cloak.
He had spent the past winter in the remnants of his old village, taking up residency with the oil workers he loathed. The old man’s words had sparked a new sense of purpose within him and his hatred for the Regent had only grown stronger with time. The past five months had been spent healing, training, and planning with no doubt what the outcome of this night had to be.
With visions of murder dancing through his head, Minamoto wove his way through the crowd without a word. A round, bamboo hat rested low on his forehead, casting a shadow which shielded his features from any curious onlookers. His destination was a large archway leading into the city.
“Welcome to Edo,” said a hollow, airy voice as he finally passed through.
Minamoto turned to his right to see a mechanical figure sitting in a small booth twitch to life with the clicking of gears on gears. Its face pivoted towards him; a solid block of wood covered with a porcelain kabuki mask painted white and smiling forever.
“Welcome to Edo,” it said again as another person walked through. There was a uniform quarter second pause between each syllable.
The noise didn’t come from its mouth, but a pipe in its chest. With the use of a small needle, each word was scratched off a spinning ceramic cylinder with the message etched in long shallow grooves.
Pushing by the distraction, Minamoto continued down a street patterned with white and red bricks swept clean of all dirt. Multistoried wooden buildings stretched in all directions and the air was so thick with the smell of smoke and diesel, he felt saturated by it.
The city was aglow with paper lanterns of every color. People passed quickly by on both sides, riding in strange horseless carriages that smoked and stuttered. On each corner, were bars opened late and filled with people dressed in fine silk, gambling and laughing as if they had not a care in the world. Wearing nothing more than torn rags, Minamoto was an oasis of filth within the sheer beauty of this new Edo.
A carriage honked loudly, narrowly missing him as it passed. He paid it no regard. All his focus was on the grand imperial palace centered within the city. It was a seven story pagoda, each story of which spun in an opposite direction—clockwise for odd, counterclockwise for even. Red tiles covered the roof of every layer.
After hours of walking the streets he stopped at a set of stairs leading to the front entrance of the palace, saying a silent prayer for his wife before continuing up. His heart beat faster with every step.
Two guards holding rifles halted his advance as he came to the front entrance. “Your presences is not permitted here, peasant. Now move along,” one said accenting his point with the shake of his gun.
Minamoto lifted his head just enough for his eyes to become visible from underneath the bamboo hat. Then a quick twist of his body, blood sliding from the blade and his sword was back in its saya before the guards’ bodies hit the ground.
The single act rejuvenated him, gave him new life. It had been too long since he felt the satisfying sensation of sword cutting through flesh. Until now, he didn’t realize that he actually missed it.
He crept thought the first floor, careful to keep to the shadows. The sound of heavy footsteps could be heard coming from all around. Minamoto backed into a corner, next to a potted bonsai, and listened carefully, saving each step and path to memory.
A soldier crossed the hallway near him into a large room with a waterfall garden placed in the center. Minamoto was quick to follow, moving without a sound. The man sensed his presence and turned just in time to have the edge of a katana drug across his neck.
Minamoto caught the body as it dropped and pulled it into the artificial pool before moving on. A school of coy fish began nipping on the dead man’s flesh where it floated just beneath the surface.
He moved down the hallway, crouched low and ready for anything. The entrance to the lift was only twenty feet away. A room to his right was fully lit with paper walls glowing a dull yellow. Shadows moved within, moaning with ecstasy.
“Hey!” yelled a voice from behind.
A hand grabbed Minamoto’s shoulder. He spun quickly, grabbing the hand and twisting its owner to the floor with a loud thump, using his other hand to rip out the guards Adam’s apple. The action was too loud for comfort.
Growling to himself silently from deep within, he prepared himself.
The moaning in the other room stopped and after a few tense moments, the doors slid open to reveal an older man, half dressed. A geisha stared with wide eyes from the background. She quickly sat upright and perhaps in shame covered herself with a blanket.
Minamoto took the man’s head without hesitation. The geisha screamed.
So much for stealth.
A gunshot rang down the hall, narrowly missing Minamoto. A second shot struck in his shoulder, throwing him off balance.
He recovered quickly as guards began pouring into the hallway. In seconds, they had him blocked on both sides. Adrenalin surged through his system.
No longer feeling pain or fear, Minamoto ran quickly around the nearest guard as more gunshots rang out. The slashes of his swords were fluid and perfectly choreographed, like that of a dance as he fought his way towards the elevator. Shredded bodies dropped quickly in his wake, absorbing bullets never intended for them before hitting the ground.
He cut through the remaining guards ahead with ease, driven by the silent memories and resolve of every samurai who came before him as if possessed by the collective multitude. Only the movements of his swords existed, and those movements were not his own.
One guard was the only thing between him and the lift. Minamoto sliced his carotid artery as he passed. He then quickly turned and grabbed the man around the neck, pulling him into the lift with him to use as a human shield against the guards still firing at the far end of the hall. His captive’s body shuttered and twitched as his torso ruptured with a dozen tiny explosions.
Minamoto kicked at various switches on a rectangle panel inside the lift. The doors finally closed with the pitter-patter of bullets ringing out against their metal exteriors. Finally safe, he didn’t so much drop the body as it slipped free of his grip.
He took the small reprieve to collect himself, basking in the pale yellow light of a single lantern hanging from the ceiling. His shoulder throbbed and he was breathing heavily. Forty nine years of war and battle were beginning to catch up with him.
There were several metal levers protruding from the wall. He pulled at them one at a time until a reaction was achieved. The lift started upwards, connected to a complex system of gears and pulleys. A dial above the door counted off each flight.
In seconds the elevator reached the top floor. The doors parted with a shriek. Gunshots came instantly.
Minamoto tucked and rolled, aiming for a large pot just to the left of the lift doors. Wooden particles permeated the air all around him as bullets riddled everything in his wake.
When the gunfire ceased, Minamoto used the refection of his sword to take an inventory—four men in total, all approaching cautiously. The room was large and circular with a rectangular rock garden in the center. Large statues lined each side.
He pulled two kunai from his sleeve, jumped up quickly, and released. The first hit one guard in the throat, the second in a guard’s eye. They both fell hard and dead on the neatly raked sands of the garden.
He ducked back down and waited as the firing commenced.
Dual clicks marked guns emptied of their load. Seizing the opportunity, Minamoto ran from his cover towards the last remaining men with both swords outstretched wide. The guards stepped back quickly in a panic, attempting to reload in time. One clicked his clip into place and managed to fire a single shot. The bullet tore through Minamoto’s side just as he took the two guards out in one clean, vertical sweep.
Mimamoto put pressure on the wound with a rag torn from his robe as he looked around. At the end opposite to the lift was a large pair of paneled doors. It was what he was looking for. He slung the blood from his blades and made his ways towards them. Blood spatter covered him from head to toe.
Reaching the doors, he parted them with his sword. The Regent (was standing/stood) next to the dais, silhouetted by the light of the moon streaming in though slits. To his right, the emperor was on his throne, curled up with eyes adverted. Two men in front of both had guns at the ready.
The Regent slammed his fist on to a button on the back wall causing the emperor’s throne to lift and spin into a cut out section behind him, hidden within panels. The false wall replaced itself instantly.
Minamoto only had a moment to register the scene before the guards opened fire and bullets ripped through his flesh.
It lasted an eternity.
Finally, staring at the aftermath of two smoking barrels, Minamoto dropped his swords and fell to his knees, his life draining out of him with each passing second.
The Regent walked towards him slowly pulling a flintlock pistol from the folds of his Kimono. Minamoto tried to reach his swords. Blood was so thick in his eyes he could barely see them.
“I assume I was your target,” said the Regent as he stepped up to him and leveled the gun.
Ayumi . . . Her smiling face the first time he met her burned bright in Minamoto’s head. With that one memory, all the pain and fury at learning of her death came crashing back. It was all consuming and impossible to control.
Moving quickly, Minamoto grabbed the gun with his left hand and broke the Regents arm at the elbow with his right. He was a man possessed.
The Regent screamed, cradling his twisted limb.
Minamoto then grabbed the gun and turned it in his grip, placing the barrel just under the Regents chin. The cold handle felt heavy in his hands, nothing like the sleek weightlessness of a sword.
The trigger offered little resistance. A low click followed by the ignition of gunpowder and the top of the Regents head turned to fleshy particles. Blood and smoke seeped from his open mouth as he dropped to the floor.
The two guards ran towards Minamoto and reared back with their bayonets. Minamoto closed his eyes, welcoming his hard earned death.
“Halt,” yelled a voice from behind, stopping the guard’s action just short of impact. “Leave this room, I’ll take it from here.”
One of the guards looked up with wide eyes, “But General Shigetoki—”
“Yes, sir,” the two men said in unison as they scurried out, hastily bowing as they passed.
Shigetoki walked up behind Minamoto, his ersatz leg hissing with every step. He leaned down to where Minamoto wheezed on the floor and whispered in his ear, “You fought bravely, General. I want to thank you for taking care of the Regent for me. You’ve done your Emperor and country a great service. But the way of the samurai dies here with you. This country is now in better hands.” He set a knife at Minamoto’s feet. “You’ve earned that much.”
Minamoto looked at the knife. He was seething. It was then he realized, this was never about honor, the samurai, or his dead family. It was about power, about killing the competition, about who was in control of the emperor. Shigetoki played on his samurai honor, fed his rage and his death wish and used them to manipulate him every step of the way—all in the name of a tradition Shigetoki never believed in. And it worked perfectly.
Never in his life had Minamoto known such shame. It was worse than all the death he’d seen in his long life, worse than the pain of the bullets lodged in his body. It was a stain on his soul and his name into eternity. He should have died on that battlefield.
With his last remaining strength he reached for the knife, his hand shaking visibly. When it was tight in his grip, he tore open his Kimono to reveal his stomach. Soaked in so much blood, the cloth ripped with little effort.
Shigetoki stared down at him with fire burning in his false eyes.
There’s more than one way to regain your honor. The words resonated over and over in Minamoto’s head. He wouldn’t go down so quietly—he had freely given too much already. Now he would offer one final service to the young emperor. What Minamoto planned was for him and him alone.
Using every last ounce of his strength, he shifted his free hand in search for something under his cloak and lunged at Shigetoki with the knife.
Seeing the intent in Minamoto’s gaze, Shigetoki had little time to react. Minamoto was quick. He was quicker. As the knife swept past his head, the old General redirected Minamoto’s already weak arm and used the momentum to slam the knife back into his neck.
Struggling for the last remnants of his life, Minamoto grasped at Shigetoki’s arm and held firm. The two stood face to face for a long moment, their eyes locked in silent battle. Minamoto tried to speak but his final words were lost to bloody gurgles. Then, just as his legs gave out, Minamoto’s lips curled into a twisted smile. It looked almost sinister.
Shigetoki flinched and threw the body to the floor, watching as the battle hardened samurai took his last breath.
Who’s smiling now? Shigetoki thought as he walked to the back wall, and hit the button. The Emperor spun back into existence from behind the false panel, peeking from behind his throne with tears rolling down his face.
“Guards,” called Shigetoki. The two men ran back in. “Remove these bodies from his Imperial Majesty’s presence.
“Sir.” The men were fast in carrying out the order.
“It’s safe now. I took care of the threat,” Shigetoki said, turning towards the Emperor.
“Thank…thank you,” said Mitsuhito distantly as if he didn’t fully understand what had just transpired. He then looked up to Shigetoki, “What do I do now. Please, tell me.”
Shigetoki smiled. Everything had worked out perfectly according to plan. In Mitsuhito’s eyes, and everyone else’s, his hands were clean of the Regent’s death. The emperor would be looking for a new Regent and who better than the man who saved his life from the ‘crazed samurai assassin.’
Shigetoki faced the child emperor head on and bowed low. “Your Imperial Majesty, if I may make a suggestion…,” he began, never registering the tiny, poisoned needle sticking deep in the flesh of his arm.