It was chaos. On the 4th of January, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan had formally seceded his authority to the Emperor, it had been a hard-won victory, but even as the Shogunate had apparently fallen, matters of the court were still directed to the actions of the Tokugawa family despite the Emperor's majority of 15 years of age. Katsumoto was furious while Katsura stayed with their men at the Chōshū headquarters in Kyoto. Saigo Takamori, leader of the Satsuma-han had physically threatened the court to confiscate the lands of the Tokugawa clan, but to no avail.
Only slightly defeated, Tokugawa Yoshinobu moved to his stronghold at Osaka Castle. On the 17th of January, he issued an edict that he would not be bound by the proclamation of Restoration and ordered the Court to rescind it. Following further provocation by the Satsuma-han's ronin in Edo, he decided to attack Kyoto city, and the numbers that he was rumored to be sending were staggering.
"The Shogun has sent 15000 men to attack Kyoto!" people shouted all over the city. Panic took the ancient capital city of Japan and its denizens evacuated east into the countryside. Those who could fight stayed there, guarding the seat of the Emperor.
On the pretext of sending a letter to His Imperial Majesty to expose the so-called crimes of Ishin patriots at court like Katsumoto and his associates, the Shogun had deployed his soldiers from Osaka Castle in order to dislodge the Satsuma and Chōshū clans from the city. Both forces would not move an inch.
Nakao did not like the odds that had been confirmed. They had been fighting in the city for several years, but facing an army that outnumbered them three to one was impossible. "My Lord, are you sure we can survive this?" he asked Katsumoto.
"Our men are well-trained and we have more Western weapons than they do," Katsumoto said, defiant over the vast discrepancy of fighters. He looked at the faces of both Ryuka and Nobutada. Over the four years of active participation in the conflict, the two of them had grown immensely. Having learned to fight as one unit, his son and apprentice had managed to stay a powerful and formidable force amongst the Chōshū ranks. Both of them showed no fear, and like him, they knew the Shogun had in fact made a terrible mistake by attacking them. "The Shogun has misjudged his advantage over numbers alone; there can be no greater full than he."
At Osaka Bay, British ships were making ready to fire at the Castle should Kyoto fall, due to the opening of Osaka and Hyogo as trading-ports just three weeks ago, and with the Shogun ill at bed, the morale of his men was so low that the 5000 men of the Satchō Alliance were sure to be able to crush them by spirit alone.
On the 27th of January, the Shogun's forces were deployed, and all of the combatants under the banner of the Satchō Alliance were called to fight.
"Ryuka, you will go to the palace and protect the Emperor," Katsumoto ordered his apprentice once the first signs of cannon fire could be heard. "The Court already knows of this arrangement, go!"
Ryuka refused. "I will stay here with you, Shishou!" she retorted, staring Katsumoto down with her sapphire eyes.
"You will do as you are ordered, Tsubasa Ryuka!" Katsumoto roared. He had never used that tone of voice on Ryuka before, and thus, she knew that he was serious. "You can find a charge no more honorable than this. Men would die for this chance. Do it for me, please. There is no one I trust more, child."
Nobutada decided to stay with his father. "Ryuka, I will take care of Chichiue," he reassured her with a soft smile so reminiscent of Katsumoto's. "Go without worries."
"Then I will go," Ryuka replied and bowed to the both of them before leaving for the Imperial Palace. "Be safe," she silently prayed, words that they would never hear.
"So, you are Tsubasa Ryuka?" Young Emperor Meiji looked at the girl that his teacher had sent to protect him. The girl nodded and bowed. She wore gi and hakama as if she was a miko, but her attire was not red and white. Her gi was of a navy color, bordered by red flowers while her hakama was black, tied just below her bustline. Like the men she wore a katana and a wakizashi, having inherited the title of samurai from her father. He had heard of this miraculous onna-bugeisha, the other student of his wise teacher. He had heard of how she protected the men that rallied to restore his divine rights and powers from the Shogun's hold, how fearless she was in battle. But before him was a girl, slightly older than he was at 18, but still a girl nonetheless.
Bowing again, she gave him an affirmative answer. Her voice was clear, but he was surprised that it did not sound like a man's. He thought a woman who fought like a man would most certainly act like one. "I am here to protect Your Imperial Majesty, under orders of my Shishou, Katsumoto Moritsugu." Once her words ended, she lifted her head and returned his gentle gaze. "I thank you for the honor of allowing my presence."
Emperor Meiji was stunned. He had not seen such eyes before. Why… the color of her eyes matched that of her gi! "Your eyes…" he stuttered, and Ryuka bowed again.
"My mother was said to be a Dutchwoman," Ryuka answered plainly. "She died when I was very, very young, but my father always told me that they had met in Nagasaki, where the Dutch were often seen trading with our countrymen." It was a credible story, for the Dutch had been the only Western government which Japan allowed trade with. For several centuries the Dutch had been based in Dejima, their only access point to the Western world… Also, it would be the only logical way that she could have such blue eyes.
"She must have been an extraordinary beauty, to have given the world a woman such as you," the Emperor continued, clearly praising Ryuka. No one had ever said those words to her before. Blushing, she retracted her head and stood at the place indicated by the nobles present. "Ryuka, I have an order for you," he told her once the air had stifled a bit. "You have been fighting by Katsumoto's side, yes? I want you to tell me everything that has happened. Do not leave anything out."
Ryuka's eyes widened, but she did as she was told.
That night, Saigo Takamori, Katsura Kogoro, Okubo Toshimichi as well as Katsumoto Moritsugu came to the Emperor for an audience. They reported to him that the Satsuma forces had encountered the Bakufu's troops on the Toba front, and rained them with cannon fire. There, their enemies were forced to retreat, but had the gall to set random houses on fire as they were pushed back. Such efforts only made them easier to be picked up by the sharpshooters of the Satsuma faction.
The Emperor did not show any emotion. He did not speak at all, for that matter. Only receiving a nod after the first half of the report, the leaders of the Satchō Alliance carried on.
"Your Imperial Majesty, the Bakufu deployed the Shinsen-Gumi at Fushimi, backed by the Aizu-han as well," Katsumoto reported, "the battle there was inconclusive, but we are sure that we would have the upper hand if the fight continues."
It was then when the Emperor sighed. "This fight must not continue," he told all of them. "Ever since the Black Ships landed, there has not been a year of peace for our people. I do not wish to hear any more news of the dead and the dying." As young as he was, Meiji knew that the Shogunate was not able to win, not when the Satchō Alliance had greater arms, despite their lesser numbers. A new age was coming to Japan, and he knew that the winds of change did not favor the Bakufu, no matter what happened. "I want this war ended within three years."
All four of the Ishin-Shishi leaders were stunned. Traditionally, Emperors did not have any stand in politics at all. Katsumoto, although an Imperial Teacher, only instructed him knowledge traditionally taught to Emperors – history, poetry, writing, and a little geography. How could the Emperor have gained so much knowledge about the outside world?
"I asked Tsubasa Ryuka to tell me everything she knew," the Emperor explained. "It seems that I have grown an extra pair of eyes since this morning." All eyes fell on Ryuka, who bowed slightly and said nothing more. "I know now that war cannot be avoided, but it must be dealt with swiftly and quickly if peace and reform are to be properly settled within our nation."
For the very first time, the Japanese courtiers heard the resoluteness of a young Emperor in what might have been centuries, and they were awed at the youth before them. It was at that moment when they knew that they had not made the wrong decision at all, that they were sure that this Emperor would be a fitting symbol to propel Japan to a new age.
"Then Your Imperial Majesty must be ready to do what Your Imperial Majesty's predecessors did not dare to do," said one of his ministers, one Iwakura Tomomi, the one who gave the green-light to the Satchō Alliance to seize the Imperial Palace. "Your Imperial Majesty must grant the Satsuma and Chōshū-han the use of the Imperial Banners."
The Imperial Banners depicted the sun and moon upon a red field, and once used in the battlefield, the combined forces of the Satchō Alliance would be part of the Imperial Army. Legally, they would have the right to exist, because no matter if the Emperor was a puppet, his army had more legal ground and backing than that of the Shogun's own. This was a weapon greater in might that the latest cannon or gun. It was a psychological one, one that would bring down the Shogun's army just by the very sight of it.
"Another step that must be taken would be to install Prince Yoshiaki to be the Commander in Chief of the Army," Katsura offered gently, knowing that the Emperor was already deep in thought. Prince Yoshiaki was the Emperor's brother, he himself a young man of twenty-two, a young man who preferred a more… ascetic lifestyle. The Prince would be one of the first Imperial figure-heads that would be used by the Satchō Alliance, and Ryuka knew that the Emperor would be next.
"I will grant you every wish so long as you give me only victory," the Emperor said with a sigh. "Only victory can ensure the preservation of your lives now."
Oh, they all knew that failure was not an option. It had never been an option for them, for if they had lost, it would mean that their efforts would have gone for naught, but also, their lands, and their families would suffer. The treason that they had committed was enough to ensure beheading, and not hara-kiri. Their kin and homelands would be shamed forever until the ending of Japanese culture.
Even the Emperor would himself suffer a worse fate than be just a puppet ruler if the Shogun would win in the upcoming conflict. What horrors awaited him, he dared not imagine.
"We will fight to the last man, Your Imperial Majesty," Katsumoto pledged to the Emperor. "To ensure that the future of Japan will be lived under your great reign."
So it came to pass that with coming dawn when the forces of the Satchō Alliance once again clash with that of the Shogunate's on both fronts: from Toba and from Fushimi. With the Imperial Banners used among their ranks, held so clearly for their enemy to see, the Shogun's forces were led into utter disarray and panic, for whoever dared to attack the bearers of the Banners would be seen as being traitors to the Emperor. With no other choice, the Shogun's soldiers retreated into a nearby forest, waiting for a chance to launch a counter-attack.
"How is it that mere bolts of embroidered cloth cause so much disturbance?" the Emperor asked Ryuka privately on the 29th of January. "Are the Bakufu soldiers not fighting for their own causes as well?"
"They hesitate because in their hearts and minds, their choice to side with the Bakufu was out of duty and service, to quell what they saw as a rebellion," Ryuka answered. "But when they saw the Imperial Banners borne by our leaders, they dared not to attack, because we are now part of the Imperial Army. We have just enough legitimate claim to exist as a martial entity as they do, because we are your soldiers, your Shishi."
At that point in time, Ryuka realized that she had suddenly forgotten the rules of formality and immediately dropped to her knees, begging for forgiveness. The Emperor only smiled and helped her to rise. "Henceforth, I give you the authority to speak clearly to me, Tsubasa Ryuka," the Emperor proclaimed. "You are, after all, my second pair of eyes."
That afternoon, the Shogunate forces were forced to retreat to Yodo Castle after the Shinsen-Gumi, their Aizu-han masters as well as their supporting guerilla troops were attacked on two fronts at Takasegawa and Ujigawa. However, they were left at the mercy of the Daimyo of Yodo, who refused them entry. Left with no other option, they retreated from whence they had been spawned – Osaka Castle.
Relentless, the Imperial Army – mainly consisting of combatants loyal to the Satchō Ishin-Shishi, marched upon Osaka Castle, breaking Tokugawa Yoshinobu's morale the moment he laid eyes on the Imperial Banners. Ever the coward, the Shogun slipped away from his own fortress and boarded an American warship while waiting for his vessel to arrive from Edo Bay. The Shogunate forces were defeated within a single day, and Osaka Castle, once the symbol of the Shogun's power and might in western Japan was surrendered to the Imperial Army by the Shogun's own advisors.
January 31st 1868 was the day the Shogun finally surrendered to the Emperor, relinquishing all his military and political authority.
Japan was now a nation born anew – preparing to rise like a phoenix from its own ashes.
The days of the Meiji Era had now come.