Read Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate Online

Authors: Richard Parks

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Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

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YAMADA MONOGATARI:
TO BREAK THE DEMON GATE

RICHARD PARKS

For Fritz Leiber,

who proved not only that genre wasn’t a cage,

but that there was no cage.

Copyright © 2014 by Richard Parks.

Cover art by Malte Zirbel.

Cover design by Sherin Nicole.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

ISBN: 978-1-60701-441-6 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-60701-435-5 (trade paperback)

PRIME BOOKS

Germantown, MD

www.prime-books.com

No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

For more information, contact Prime Books at [email protected]

Part One

No mountain stands aside,

Nor seas grow calm at our word.

The World is a Dream,

But not of our dreaming.

All must weep, but who will dance?

In the early evening a tiny moth-demon was trying to batter its way into my room through a tear in the paper screen, no doubt attracted by the scent of poverty. I was debating whether to frighten the silly thing away or simply crush it, when the Widow Tamahara’s delightful voice sent the poor creature fluttering away as fast as its little wings could carry it.

“Yamada-san, you have a visitor!”

Tamahara kneeled by the shoji screen that was the only door to my rooms. Besides the volume, there was an edge of excitement in the formidable old woman’s voice that worried me just a little. The fact that aristocracy impressed her had worked to my advantage more than once when the rent was late, but her deference meant that just about anyone could get closer to me than might be healthy; that is, if they were of the right station in life. Anyone else giving a hint of trouble in her establishment she would throw out on their ear, if they were lucky.

“Who is it, Tamahara-san?”

“A messenger and that is all I know. She’s waiting in the courtyard with her escort.”

She
?

Well, that explained why Widow Tamahara had not simply brought the person to my rooms. That would not have been proper, and the Widow Tamahara always did the right thing, to the degree that she understood what “the right thing” was.

“Just a moment,” I said.

After some thought I tucked a long dagger into my sleeve but left my
tachi
where it was. I wasn’t wearing my best clothes, but my best would have been equally unimpressive. At least everything was clean. I followed Tamahara out into the courtyard. The sun had set, but there was light enough still.

The woman kneeled near a small pine tree, flanked on either side by her escorts. No rough provincial warriors these; the two men were polite, impassive, well-dressed and well-armed. The younger man wore the red and black clothing and bore the butterfly
mon
of the Taira Clan, the other wore plain black and bore no family crest or identification at all. I judged them as best I could. The escort wearing Taira livery I think I could have bested, if absolutely necessary and with a bit of luck. But the other . . . well, let’s just say I didn’t want any trouble. I also could not escape the feeling that we had met before.

I bowed formally and then kneeled in front of the woman. I noted the rightmost warrior’s quick glance at my sleeve and how he inched almost imperceptibly closer, all the while not appearing to have noticed or moved at all. The man was even more formidable than I had suspected, but now my attention was on the woman.

Her
kimono
was very simple, as befitted a servant. Two shades of blue at most, though impeccably appropriate for the time of year. She wore a
boshi
with a long veil that circled the brim and hid her features. Naturally, she did not remove it. She merely bowed again from her seated position and held out a scroll resting on the palms of her small hands.

I took the offered scroll, all the while careful to make no sudden movements, and unrolled it to read:

The Peony bows

to no avail; the March wind

is fierce, unceasing.

So there I was, caught like a rabbit in a snare. Not that my heart had ever left the Imperial Compound, but I don’t think I’d truly understood how easy it would be to pull back the rest of me as well. Just the first three lines of a
tanka,
the
kami-no-ku,
was all she needed. The poem was not yet complete, of course; the part of the poem known as the
shimo-no-ku,
the lower phrase, was missing. That part was up to me.

I looked at the shadow of the woman’s face, hidden behind the veil. “Are you instructed to await my reply?”

Again she bowed without speaking. The escort on her right produced a pen case and ink. I considered for a few moments, then added the following two lines:

The donkey kneels down to rest.

In his shadow, flowers grow.

My poetic skills—never more than adequate—were more than a little rusty, and the result was no better than passable. Yet the form was correct and the meaning, like that of the first segment, more than clear to the one who would read it. The woman took the message from me, bowed again, then rose as one with her escorts and withdrew quickly without further ceremony.

The Widow Tamahara watched all this from the discreet distance of the veranda encircling the courtyard.

“Is this work?” she asked when I passed her on the way back to my room. “Will you be paid?”

“ ‘Yes’ seems the likely answer to both,” I said, though that was mostly to placate the old woman. I was fairly certain that I would be the one paying, one way or the other.

Later that evening I didn’t bother to prepare my bedding. I waited, fully clothed and in the darkness of my room, for my inevitable visitor. The summons was clear and urgent, but I couldn’t simply answer it. The matter was much more complicated than that.

The full moon cast the man’s shadow across the thin screen that was my doorway. It wasn’t a mistake; he wanted me to know he was there. I pulled the screen aside, but I was pretty sure I knew who would be waiting.

He kneeled on the veranda, the hilt of his sword clearly visible. “Lord Yamada? My name is Kanemore.”

“Lord” was technically correct but a little jarring to hear applied to me again, especially coming from a man who was the son of an emperor. I finally realized who he was.

“Prince Kanemore. You were named after the poet, Taira no Kanemore, weren’t you?” I asked.

He smiled then, or perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight. “My mother thought that having a famous poet for a namesake might gentle my nature. In that I fear she was mistaken. So, you remember me?”

“I do. Even when you were not at Court, your sister Princess Teiko always spoke highly of you.”

He smiled faintly. “And so back to the matter at hand: Lord Yamada, I am charged to bring you safely to the Imperial Compound.”

The light was poor, but I used what there was to study the man a little more closely than I’d had time to do at our meeting earlier in the day when he’d formed part of the veiled woman’s escort. He was somewhat younger than I, perhaps thirty or so, and quite handsome except for a fresh scar that began on his left cheek and reached his jaw line.

He studied me just as intently; I didn’t want to speculate on what his conclusions might be. Whether caused by my involvement or the situation itself—and I still didn’t have any idea what that was—Kanemore was not happy. His face betrayed nothing, but his entire being was as tense as a bow at full draw.

“I am ready, Prince Kanemore.”

“Just Kanemore, please. With the Emperor’s permission, I will renounce my title and start a new clan, since it is neither my destiny nor wish to ascend the throne.”

“I am Goji. Lead on then.”

The streets were dark and poorly lit. I saw the flare of an
onibi
down an alleyway and knew the ghosts were about. At this time of evening demons were a possibility too, but one of the beauties of Kyoto was that the multitude of temples and shrines tended to make the atmosphere uncomfortable for most of the fiercer demons and monsters. The rest, like the moth-demon, were used to skulking about the niches and small spaces of the city, unnoticed and deliberately so—being vulnerable to both exorcism and common steel.

We reached the thoroughfare known as Shijo without incident and turned west. The full moon was high now, and I wished there had been time to turn east to Shijo Bridge, where the view would be so much better with the moonlight reflecting off the water. However, we did pass a small fountain, and Kanemore’s attention was focused on the moon’s reflection as he paused for a second or two to admire it. I found this oddly reassuring; a man who did not pause to view a full moon at opportunity had no soul, but the fact that his moon-viewing amounted to little more than a hesitation on the way to the Imperial Compound showed his attention to duty. I already knew I did not want Kanemore as my enemy. Now I wondered if we could be friends.

“Do you know what this is about?” I asked.

“Explanations are best left to my sister,” he said. “My understanding is far from complete.”

“At this point I would be glad of scraps. I only know that Princess Teiko is in difficulty—”

He corrected me instantly. “It is her son Takahito that concerns my sister most. She always thinks of him first.”

I didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking. “Is Takahito unwell?”

“He is healthy,” Kanemore said, “and still his half-brother’s heir, at present.”

That was far too ominous. “Kanemore-san, it was my understanding that the late Emperor only allowed the current Emperor to ascend on the condition that Takahito be named heir after him, and that Takahito would in turn inhabit the Sanjo Palace and take his royal grandfather’s nickname upon his eventual ascent. Is Emperor Reizei thinking of defying his father’s wishes?”

Kanemore looked uncomfortable. “There have been . . . complications. Plus, the Fujiwara favor another candidate, Prince Norihira. He is considered more agreeable. I can say no more for now.” More agreeable because, unlike Princess Teiko, Norihira’s mother was Fujiwara.

I considered this. If the Fujiwara Clan supported another candidate, then this was bad news for Takahito. As the Taira and Minamoto and other military families were the might of the Emperor, so were the Fujiwara his administration. Court ministers and minor officials alike were drawn primarily from their ranks. All power was the Emperor’s in theory, but in practice his role was mostly ceremonial. It was the Fujiwara, especially Chancellor Yorimichi, who kept the government in motion.

Still, the politics of the Imperial Court and the machinations of the Fujiwara were both subjects I had happily abandoned years ago. Now it appeared that I needed to renew my understanding and quickly. Despite my desire to question him further, I knew that Kanemore had said all he was going to say on the matter for now. I changed the subject.

“Did you see much fighting while you were in the north?”

“A bit,” he admitted. “The Abe Clan is contained, but not yet pacified. I fear more trouble . . . ” he trailed off, then stopped and turned toward me. “Lord Yamada, are you a seer in addition to your other rumored talents? How did you know I had been in the north?”

I tried to keep from smiling. “That scar on your jaw is from a blade and fairly new. Even if you were inclined to brawling—which I seriously doubt—I don’t believe the average drunken
bushi
could so much as touch you. That leaves the northern campaigns as the only reasonable conclusion. It was an educated guess, no more.”

He rubbed his scar thoughtfully. “Impressive, even so. But the hour grows late, and I think we should be on our way.”

We had taken no more than a few steps when two
bushi
staggered out of a nearby drinking establishment. One collided with me and muttered a slurred curse and reached for his sword. I didn’t give the fool time to draw it. I struck him with my open palm square on the chin and his head snapped back and collided with a very hard lintel post. This was fortunate for him, since Kanemore’s
tachi
was already clear of its scabbard and poised for the blow swordsmen liked to call “the pear splitter”, because a split pear is precisely what the victim’s bisected head resembled once the blow was completed. I have no doubt that Kanemore would have demonstrated this classic technique on that drunken lout had I not been in the path of his sword. The drunk’s equally inebriated companion had his own sword half-drawn, but took a long look at Kanemore and thought better of it. He sheathed his sword, bowed in a rather grudging apology, and helped his addled friend to his feet. Together they staggered off into the night.

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