The scent of fresh water and swirling dust suffused the air as their convoy neared the deep moat enclosing Heian Castle. Kenshin left his ten ashigaru and three of his samurai in a clean set of barracks just beyond the curved stone wall at the edge of the moat. Then he and his two remaining samurai crossed the wooden drawbridge, pausing before the first set of towering black gates at the castle’s entrance. Gold-plated hinges and round-ringed handles glistened in the late-afternoon sun as Kenshin and his men waited to speak with the imperial troops manning the guard tower. When two of the soldiers stepped forward to address Kenshin formally, he noticed the silk banners flying on either side of the glossy black gates. Even the rivets were plated in gold.

No expense had been spared to make Heian Castle a worthy seat for the empire’s heavenly sovereign.

The imperial guards stood rigid, inspecting all the weaponry Kenshin and his men wished to bear with them. As samurai, Kenshin and his men were allowed to enter the castle bearing two customary swords each—a katana and a shorter wakizashi. Hidden weapons were considered dishonorable. As was the act of unsheathing a blade in the emperor’s presence.

Just before the second pair of gates, Kenshin and his samurai were instructed to leave their horses with one of the stable attendants waiting nearby. Then they began to ascend the immense stone staircase leading to the imperial grounds. The weight of his armor and the heat of the early summer sun slowed Kenshin’s pace. But it also offered him a chance to take in the splendor of the imperial castle rising before him, each of its seven gabled stories and gilded rooftops flashing, catching, throwing endless rays of light.

When the first of eight concentric baileys rose into view, Kenshin paused. This series of maru was famous even beyond the reaches of the empire. Its inner workings were said to be enchanted. Crafted by an ageless kind of sorcery. The first and largest maru was complete with a pond and mazelike pathways graveled by white stone. The pattern of its spiraling walkways served two purposes—one of beauty and one of befuddlement. It was designed to confound, for the entrances and exits did not flow in logical order. At all hours of day and night, the concentric circles moved in different directions, at different speeds, like wheels turning within each other. Absent a knowledgeable escort, a guest could get lost at Heian Castle without even trying.

And an intruder?

Would never make it out alive.

Kenshin halted before taking the final step onto the trimmed grass of the first maru.

This marked the only occasion he had ever been to Inako without his father. Without his family. Today would be the first day he and he alone would represent his clan before their emperor.

Kenshin had not expected to feel so uneasy at this realization.

But he did not show it. Would never show it.

Instead he took the last step, careful to remain steady. To enjoy these brief moments to himself.

While he still could.

Contrary to what Kenshin had expected, he was not instructed to go before the emperor upon his arrival.

A fact that gave him pause.

Instead Kenshin and his men were told to wait for a time on the enchanted maru. They crossed the perfectly manicured lawn, stopping only to watch the hundred-year-old carp and its gaggle of orange-and-white koi flit beneath the waters of an azure pond. One of the emperor’s attendants then bowed low before Kenshin, calmly leading him toward another maru, past another series of inner gates. As they moved through the arched entrance, Kenshin felt the ground beneath him shift. Felt it turn slowly to conceal their trail and keep him and his men from view. They quickly exited the second bailey and flew down a staircase leading to a grassy field ringed by a gathering of richly garbed onlookers.

Soon Kenshin understood why he and his men had been brought here instead of being formally received by the emperor.

They’d arrived at Heian Castle at a moment of spectacle.

Beneath an eight-sided silk canopy—resting atop a tiered dais—sat Emperor Minamoto Masaru upon his black lacquered throne. The balustrades on either side of him were painted vermillion. Eight silver phoenixes were mounted at every post. Hanging between these posts were flashing mirrors and curtains of spun silk, stamped in their centers with the imperial crest of the Minamoto clan.

Strange that the emperor had chosen to display the phoenix alongside his own crest. The Minamoto crest was one of gentian flowers and bamboo leaves—a crest that signified prosperity and granted its bearer protection against evil. The phoenix crest had always been associated with the Takeda clan—a long line of shōgun that had fallen from grace under a cloud of shame. When the last of the Takeda line had disappeared ten years ago, the thousand-year joint reign between emperor and shōgun—an emperor to rule the people, a shōgun to lead the army—had disintegrated.

Had faded into remembrance.

A part of Kenshin understood why the son of Takeda Shingen was unwilling to come forward, even following a decade of exile. His clan had collapsed in disgrace. His father had been compelled to end his life after conspiring to commit treason against the emperor. The emperor had been generous indeed to offer a traitor the honor of a warrior’s death. A chance to die so that his son might live.

No one knew for certain where this disgraced boy—this rōnin—might be. If he was still alive, he would be around Kenshin’s age. Perhaps a year or so older. In time, rumors had spilled from the lips of drunken soldiers. Had rippled through lantern-lit gardens and spread like wildfire behind fluttering fans. The son of Takeda Shingen had become a beggar. A thief. A pirate. A whoremonger. He and his lost family had become the stuff of legend. A warning to all those who dared consider speaking out against the emperor.

No matter how high a man rose in life, death was the greatest of equalizers.

As a result of Takeda Shingen’s treachery, both the might of the army and the will of the people now rested with the emperor. Perhaps that was why Minamoto Masaru had thought to marry the two symbols under his own banner. A phoenix flying alongside a crest of gentian flowers. A bird risen from the ashes of a bloody history.

The thunder of stampeding hooves tore Kenshin from his thoughts. Cheers erupted from the throng of onlookers seated on plush cushions, their servants balancing colorful silk umbrellas above elaborate headdresses. The noblemen sat nearest to the emperor. The empress and her female attendants were gathered on a lower dais positioned to the right.

On the grassy field before them, the yabusame—the imperial army’s elite force of mounted archers—conducted an exhibition. Most of the imperial court had come to partake in the scene. Kenshin had heard from others who frequented Inako that the emperor often invited those in the nobility and their guests to witness the might of the empire’s army.

The skill of its best soldiers and finest samurai.

Though Kenshin was mildly interested in watching the display, he kept beyond the gathering of noblemen in their silken finery and the ladies of the court fluttering their folded fans. Kept apart and removed, as he often felt in such company. Kenshin had never been at ease around those in the imperial court. It was not that he harbored any judgment against them. He knew these shows of extravagance were necessary. They offered outsiders a glimpse of the empire’s glory, and they gave its citizens a chance to revel in its greatness.

As he continued watching the exhibition, Kenshin’s expression began to sour.

These were skilled riders. Skilled archers. The best the empire had to offer.

But it was still a show. And such immodesty did not sit well with the ideals of bushidō. Was not in keeping with the way of the warrior.

Weapons were not meant for show.

They were meant for war. Meant to be used in defense of a samurai’s lord. In defense of one’s family.

And, above all, in defense of the emperor.

A member of the yabusame soon drew every onlooker’s notice. The young rider sat atop a dappled steed. One side of his fine silk robe hung from his right shoulder—revealing the armored silver yoroihitatare beneath—freeing his arm for unencumbered movement. With a rattan-reinforced bow, he fired whistling arrows at a notched post, three times in rapid succession, all while riding faster—and more fearlessly—than any of his peers. Not once did the young warrior reach for the reins, but directed his horse entirely with his knees. Even from a distance, Kenshin could see how he rode—heels down, locked in placed, steady. Excellent horsemanship was a requisite of being in the yabusame. As was the ability to fire arrows at high speeds with uncanny accuracy.

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