“A Quarrel Among Conquerors”

Copyright 2020 Jack Sutter

 

An icy wind cut through the predawn darkness, hurling small flurries of snow from the slate covered roofs into the alleys below.  Far in the distance, the summit of Mount Fuji was still shrouded in night, and the streets of Tokyo hung with a breathless silence amidst the frigid hush of the newfallen snow, when from the residence of the Prime Minister of Japan, there suddenly came the crack of gunfire.

 

It was shortly after Five O’clock in the morning on the Twenty-Sixth of February, the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Thirty-Six.  For the past several years, the Imperial Japanese Army had been divided between two factions. Those of the Imperial Way believed that Japan’s future lay in the north of Asia, with their eyes set upon Manchuria, Mongolia, and the eastern frontiers of the Soviet Union, while those of the Control Faction had turned their eyes southward towards the heart of China and the bountiful islands of the Pacific.  The northern faction was dominated by a cadre of young, idealistic Japanese officers dismayed by corrupt bureaucrats and industrialists at home and the looming menace of Communist regimes abroad, who therefore sought to purge Japan of the malignant influences of the West and restore it state of purity under the direct rule of the divine emperor. The machinations of these radicals had created a period of strife which was to be later called “government by assisnation”, a period which had now come to its climax.  A full blown coup was now in progress. The self-styled Righteous Army, an assemblage of some fifteen hundred rebels led by radicalized junior officers, had launched simultaneous attacks on the Ministry of War, the Tokyo police headquarters, and the private residences of the Prime Minister of Japan and half a score of other high ranking officials of the Empire. In a short while, the silence of the capital was shattered by scattered gun battles between mutineers and police, and the house of the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of Japan was ablaze with fire.  Many high officers of the land were either dead or in hiding, and the Imperial Palace itself had been infiltrated and was in imminent danger.

 

Along the narrow alleyways of a very old neighborhood, a squad of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers ploughed through the snow covered streets at a brisk jog, their Asikara rifles fixed with wicked bayonets shaped like factory caricatures of ancient Japanese blades.  At their head was a young officer, hardly more than a boy in a man’s boots. Coming to a halt, the youth drew his sword, a brutal, machine made imitation of the past, and with a bark of command he pointed at the fragile door of a poor, but very traditional looking house.  Without a moment’s hesitation, the soldiers fell upon the door with a shout, and the wood splintered with a crack as they pounded it with their rifle butts. Kicking the remainder of the door in with his boot, the young officer strode across the threshold, brandishing his sword.

 

Inside, a terrified young woman was cringing in the corner near a freshly lit iron stove.  As the officer glared at her, she looked up with a new expression of shock on her face.

 

“Tanaka!”, she cried.  “What are you doing here?”

 

“Where is Rusui?”, the officer demanded.   

 

“He’s still asleep”, the girl replied, shaking.  “Please, Tanaka, what has happened? Why are all these soldiers here, why have you broken in like this?”

 

“Be silent, Mamiko!”, the young man barked.  “Go fetch your master and bring him here at once, or else I’ll come get him myself.”

 

Without another word, the girl bowed, still shaking, and sped to the next room.  A few moments later, she returned in the company of an elderly man. His beard was long and white, and even in his night clothes he bore himself with a solemn dignity, which remained unbroken as he gazed at the young officer with a pair of grave, sad eyes.

 

“Well, young Tanaka”, he said.  “What have you to say for yourself?  Why have you broken into my house and terrified my housekeeper?”

 

The young man stiffened, and reflexively he stood a bit straighter.  He bowed his head respectfully, even after all that had since passed.

 

“That’s Lieutenant Tanaka now, sir”, he said.

 

“Hmph!”, the old man said.  “How you’ve changed since you left me.  Hardly for the better, I might add. At least there seems to be some vestige of deference left in you.”

 

“My deference is to His Majesty the Emperor”, Tanaka bit back.  “As should yours be.”

 

“I have no quarrel with the Emperor”, the old man replied.  “His duty is to the nation, my duty is to the mountain. Let me keep to mine, and he may keep to his.”

 

The young man sneered.

 

“Mind your tongue, old man!”, he replied.  “The hour of the Kōdōha is at hand! Soon, the Emperor shall be restored to his rightful place.”

 

“I didn’t know he had left it”, the old man replied.

 

“The Emperor is surrounded by traitors and liars, to whom justice is being served at this very moment.  But there is still more. Soon, the spirit of Sakuya-hime herself shall purge the nation of all foreign corruption.”

 

At this, the old man’s eyes narrowed.

 

“What do mean by that?”, he demanded gravely.

 

“I think you know precisely what I mean”, Tanaka replied.  “With your help, I shall release the spirit of the Goddess from the bonds which imprison her, and then she shall cleanse Japan of all impurity.”

 

“Fool!”, the old man cried.  “After all the years you spent under my training, can you still be so ignorant?  The Goddess is the keeper of the mountain. You know what will happen if her wrath is provoked.”

 

“Poor, frightened old man!”, Tanaka cried.  “You are too afraid of the Goddess of your own mountain.  You will tell me what I want to know, or I will cut you down where you stand!”

 

“Go ahead, cut me down!”, the old man replied.  “Better I should die than all of Tokyo be buried under a heap of volcanic ash!”

 

“Very well, then, if you care not for your own life you may at least care for that of Mamiko”, with that, he reached out and snakend his arm around the neck of the trembling girl who had been standing aside silently as the others spoke.

 

“Please, no!”, she cried.  “You were like my brother, Tanaka!  How could you do this?”

 

“Silence!”, Tanaka barked.  “Well, old man, what is it to be?  Tell me the location of the Shrine of Shrines, or I will slit Mamiko’s throat wide open before your eyes!”

 

The old man’s eyes flashed, and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth as he bit his lip in rage.

 

“Worthless whelpling!”, he cried.  “You are nothing but a sponge for the poison of this age.  You and your kind will destroy Japan, whether you find the Shrine or not.  I will not help you. You may kill the both of us now, for I shall never speak.”

 

Tanaka’s eyes darted furtively around the room.

 

“I don’t need you, old man”, the man said.  “The secret is in this building somewhere. It must be!”

 

“Perhaps it is”, the old man said.  “But you shall never find it!”  

 

With that, the old man spread his palms wide, as his eyes rolled back behind their lids he began chanting in a strange tongue.  An instant later, a jet of flame shot out of the stove beside him like a flamethrower, separating him from where Tanaka stood with his arm around Makimo and setting the far side of the room ablaze.  

 

“Get back!”, Tanaka yelled to the men behind him as the room caught fire like a mass of kindling.  Dragging a screaming Makimo with him, Tanaka shoved his way back outside the building.

 

“Quickly!”, he cried.  “Fetch water and summon the fire brigade!  The building must be saved!”

 

But it was too late.  With an almost uncanny speed, the house was consumed with fire, and the last they saw of Rusui was the silhouette of the old man standing motionless in the middle of the flames, his palms still spread wide.  

 

Tanaka stood before the blaze, his sword arm resting futilely at his side, while beside him Makimo knelt in the snow, sobbing.  Then softly, Tanaka knelt down beside her, and grabbing her chin he turned her head towards him and stared into her tear stained eyes.

 

“Rusui is dead, Makimo”, Tanaka said.  “Now only you are left. You will tell me what I want to know!”

 

“Please!”, she cried.  “Please, I don’t know where the shrine is!  I swear to you!”

 

“Impossible!”, Tanaka cried with rage.  “Surely the old man must have told you something!  The Shrine lies upon the Fire Blossom Road, doesn’t it?”

 

Makimo’s eyes darted away.  “I don’t know!”, she cried.

 

“I think you do!”, Tanaka barked.  “Get up, girl! We will take the Fire Blossom Road. And then, you will reveal to me what you know.”

 

Across the capital, the light of dawn was breaking upon a city in turmoil.  The rebels stood on the brink of success. And there they remained. They had failed to seize the Imperial Palace, and from it’s halls the wrath of the Emperor burst forth with fury.  The demands of the rebels were flatly rebuked, and the Emperor had instead commanded the rest of the army to crush the insurgents immediately. Martial law had been proclaimed, the Imperial Japanese Navy had rallied in support of the Emperor, and by afternoon the next day the 1st Fleet had deployed marines into the city while Army reinforcements poured in from all sides.  For the moment, all sides were at a stalemate.

 

It was now sunset on the evening of February the Twenty-Seventh.  Along the snowy flanks of Mount Fuji, a squad of soldiers trudged their way along a long forgotten path far away from the tumult of the city.  At their head, Tanaka led the way with Makimo at his side, her hands cuffed behind her. As they walked, Tanaka kept his eye on the woman, watching her reactions.  At length, they came upon a small vertical stone standing at the edge of the path. For a moment, Makimo’s eyes widened ever so slightly before she quickly turned her head away.  Tanaka called a halt, and squatting down on the ground he examined the stone. Inscribed on its surface was a warning of some kind, but some of the kanji were unfamiliar to him, and Tanaka had difficulty interpreting its exact meaning.  He turned his eyes to the woman.

 

“Well, Makimo?  What do you make of this?”

 

“I don’t know what you mean”, she said without looking at him.

 

“Oh, I think you know what I mean.  You’ve been here before, haven’t you?  What does this stone say?”

 

“Please!”, she cried.  “We mustn’t go any farther!  It is forbidden.”

 

“You are a little liar, Makimo”, Tanaka sneered.  “But you’ve already told me what I want to know.” With that, Tanaka ordered his column to proceed.  

 

As they continued along the path, the snow began to fall more heavily, and the wind picked up great waves of snow from the face of the mountainside and hurled it downwards upon the path.  With each step the visibility grew worse and worse, and in a short while Tanaka could hardly see more than a few steps ahead of himself. He grabbed Makimo’s arm, and held it in an iron grip as their bodies were buffeted in the snowy gale.  Behind him, he could hear his men calling vainly to one another, until one by one their voices faded away in the wind. In a matter of minutes, he and Makimo were alone, creeping along as best they could amidst a whirling cyclone of snow. Soon they were reduced to crawling on their hands and knees, lest the window hurl them from the path and cast their bodies down the mountainside.  But Tanaka had learned much during the years he had spent in the service old Rusui. He could sense that he was getting close to his quarry. All but blind, he abruptly turned to his left, grabbing at Makimo’s kimono to signal to follow him.

 

And just as suddenly as it had begun, the snowstorm ended.

 

Tanaka and Makimo were surrounded in darkness.  Behind them, a pale circular opening was their only light.  Tanaka dug out a flashlight from the recesses of his uniform, and flicked it on.

 

He and Makimo were crouching inside a low cave.  Behind them, the snowstorm was still raging outside the narrow entrance through which they had blindly crawled a moment ago.  The cave was not tall enough to stand in, and Tanaka and Makimo were forced to remain on their knees, wet and shivering. As Tanaka cast his flashlight furthur around the cave, he could see that the walls were inscribed on all sides with strange and ancient kanji, only a fraction of which he could understand.  And on the opposite side of the cave there was a low, square arc-like structure jutting out of the rock, like a miniature torii at the entrance of a Shinto shrine. Inscribed in the rock beneath the arch was a string of inscrutable kanji.  

 

Tanaka was certain he had reached his destination.  Surely this must be the Shrine of Shrines. But it was nothing like he had expected.  He had expected to find a shintai of some sort, the place where the spirit of the kami resided.  But as he gaped at the empty cave around him, he realized how foolish this was. Of course, the mountain was the shintai of the Goddess.  On a sudden inspiration, he reached out towards the arch before him, and rested his hand on the cave wall beneath it.

 

And his hand passed straight through, as if the stone wasn’t even there.  Commanding Makimo to follow him, Tanaka crawled forward on his hands and knees.  As he passed beneath the arch, he felt a slight sense of vertigo as the stone melted away before him, but nothing more.

 

A moment later, he and Makimo found themselves inside a tall chamber.  Stumbling to their feet, they looked about themselves. It was nearly identical to the last, save in size, with the walls covered in alien kanji, with the exception that there were now four low arches.  In addition to the one through which they had just passed there were three more placed on opposing sides of the chamber, each marked with kanji representing the four points of the compass. And in the center of the chamber there was a small hokora, a miniature shrine, made of pure gold and surrounded by shimmering candles.  And beneath the golden roof of the tiny shrine, there was a jade sculpture of a dragon, which cradled amidst it’s coils a transparent gem of faintly luminous green crystal.  

 

Tanaka caught his breath as his heart began to race.  There, before him lay the power of Mount Fuji itself, only waiting to be released.  With a trembling hand, he dug into a pouch at his side and retrieved a grenade.

 

“Stop!”, a voice cried.

 

Tanaka froze, and his eyes went wide as a man stepped out of the shadows across the room.

 

“Rusui!”, Tanaka cried, while Makimo remained silent.

 

“Are you surprised?”, the old man replied.  “Makimo knows what I am, I am surprised that you had never suspected.   Did you really think that the keeper of the Shrine of Shrines should be any less than a kami himself?  Come, boy! See now if you can slay me!”

 

As he spoke, the old man reached to his side, where there hung an ancient tachi, glittering with inlaid gold and brilliant teal silk.  As the old man drew the sword from its scabbard, Tanaka snarled with rage.

 

“I will not believe it!”, he cried.  “You are nothing but a weak old man, Rusui!  You and your kind are the past, we the young are the future of Japan, and we shall lead the nation to its glorious destiny!”  

 

With that, Tanaka drew his own sword, and with a howl of fury he hurled himself at his former master.

The old man deflected his pupil’s blade with a casual parry.  And then a wild contest ensued, as Tanaka spent his rage upon the blade of his foe with mad abandon.  But it was soon obvious that the master was merely toying with his former pupil. As he fought, Tanaka’s eyes grew wide again with helpless terror, as he realized he was no match for the spirit of the ancient warrior.  And as the kami’s blade sung past his own one last time, Tanaka’s eyes closed with resignation as the sword sliced into his neck.

 

Makimo hid her eyes in silent anguish as Tanaka’s body crumpled to the floor alongside his severed head.  With one clean motion, the old man wiped his blood red blade upon the khaki uniform of his foe. Then without a word, he sheathed his sword and taking Makimo’s hand, he led back from whence she had come.

 

Outside, the snowstorm had stopped.  All around there was silence as the old man and the girl stood upon the slope of the mountain, looking out towards the city below.

 

“It hardly matters”, the old man said sadly as he gazed outward into the eastern sky.  “Japan is already doomed. The Mountain may sleep, but Tokyo will burn nonetheless. There will soon come a day when forty-eight stars shall appear in the east to smother the rising sun.  For there are many more men like Tanaka.”

 

By the 29th of February, the rebels in Tokyo were besieged and surrounded by more than twenty thousand troops and a squadron of tanks.  Such was the Emperor’s answer to their demands. Of the young officers Righteous Army, those who did not commit suicide were tried and executed as mutineers.  But though the creed of the Imperial Way was now all but dead, the spirit of their cause prevailed. In the wake of the rebellion, the military gained an even greater hold over the Imperial government than before, and the triumphant faction was able to impose its own course upon the helm of the nation.  One year later, the Empire of Japan invaded mainland China, and in Asia the Second World War had begun, and five years later the Empire burst forth into the Pacific, attacking Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and at last Hawaii. Makimo perished nine years later in the firestorms of Tokyo. But the old man of Mount Fuji remained.  And it said that the keeper of the Shrine of Shrines lives to this day, roaming the oldest surviving places of Tokyo

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