Shike – Day 11 of 306

My father, it seems, is unwilling to pay much to ensure that I travel safely, judging by the strange youth he has hired to protect me. One hears dark tales about this sinister Order of Zinja, that their warriors are aided by evil spirits and that no one is safe from them. One also hears interesting things about the goings-on between the Zinja monks and their temple women. I wonder if this one has ever been a lover. He is so huge and of such an odd colour. I would be afraid to let him near me. But if he were near me I would be afraid to refuse him whatever he wished. There is something pleasurable in the thought of a man who makes one feel helpless. The Zinja monk’s presence makes this journey far more interesting.

-Seventh Month, twenty-third day


Chapter Four

The white cone seemed to block out half the sky. Every time Jebu looked at it, he gasped again. He had never seen a mountain of this size. No one had warned him that on this journey he would behold such a marvel.

He had seen it from a distance as they rode into the hills above Kamakura, but then it was small and far off. As they crossed the neck of the Izu Peninsula he began to grasp its size. Its simple symmetry astonished him; the way its snowy peak reflected the colours of the day, from rose to white to gold, brought tears to his eyes. But it was only today, approaching Hara, that he had a full sense of the silent volcano’s immensity. Yesterday he had spoken to no one of his feelings about the mountain. Today, as it happened, the Lady Taniko was riding beside him. He overcame his hesitancy and addressed her.

“Please, my lady, what is the name of that magnificent mountain?”

She turned to him slowly, her face a mask of exaggerated surprise and contempt. “You mean you’ve never heard of Fuji-san? Truly, the Zinja are ignorant as well as poor and miserable.”

She lowered her head so that the brim of her circular sedge hat hid her eyes. She pulled her horse’s head around abruptly and trotted back down the road towards her maids. The sudden movement startled two cranes in the near-by reeds, and they flapped upwards until they were two tiny silhouettes in the sky above Mount Fuji.

The journey down the coast was slow. No one spoke to Jebu. Taniko and her maids apparently considered him beneath their notice, and the porters were afraid of him. The days were punctuated only by frequent rainstorms and the necessity of passing innumerable toll barriers. Every so often the road would disappear altogether, and they would have to pick their way along boulder-strewn beaches or through pathless woods.

The baggage included a small tent, which the ladies used for sleeping outdoors and as a shelter in wet weather. Jebu and the two porters took turns standing watch when the party slept out of doors. When possible they stayed at monasteries or at the homes of Lord Bokuden’s friends, several of whom had built castles overlooking the Tokaido.

One sunny afternoon, eight days after they set out, they were riding single file along a hillside that rose sheer out of the sea, when the porter leading the way suddenly threw up his hands. He fell from his horse, rolled over and over down the hill, arms and legs flailing, and disappeared with a great splash amid the brown rocks and blue-white breakers. Jebu got a glimpse, as the man fell, of the grey and white feathers of an arrow protruding from his chest.

Jebu clenched his fists and ground his teeth with rage. He had failed. Because he had chosen this particular afternoon to bring up the rear, he had let the porter ride to his death. A life that had been in his keeping was lost. He shut his eyes momentarily and reminded himself that a Zinja is aware at all times of his own perfection, regardless of circumstances. Then, shaking his head angrily, he spurred Hollyhock up the path to put himself between the rest of the party and the attacker.

Blocking the road was a big samurai in box-shaped, many-plated leather armour, mounted on a black roan horse. In one hand he held his longbow—a bow that must have required three men to bend it for stringing. Beside him stood three tsuibushi, each holding the foot soldier’s favourite weapon, the long-handled naginata.

Jebu estimated that the samurai was not quite as tall as he was. Bare headed, he wore his greasy hair pulled back tightly and tied in the round black knot of hair by which the samurai identified themselves. His beard was raggedly trimmed. He had the pink eyes and permanent flush of the heavy sake drinker. Jebu recognized the type at once: a rustic bully, too in love with fighting and drinking to settle down to farm work. Doubtless the terror of the neighbourhood when young, enjoying his pick of the girls. One who might easily have become an outlaw but who, through some accident of birth or social connection, was made a local official and could legally prey upon the peasants. Growing more cruel, more dangerous, more unpredictable as he got older and the futility and boredom of his life began to eat at him. At bottom, most samurai were like this man, though some were born to greater wealth, were more competent in the arts of fighting, travelled farther and did better for themselves than others. The samurai saw themselves as noble and redoubtable warriors. The Zinja saw them as destructive, dangerous and stupid, like small boys whose parents have foolishly permitted them to play with knives.

Jebu reined up Hollyhock a short distance from the samurai and his men and said, “You have murdered an unarmed man. You will answer for it to the oryoshi of this district. We will demand justice.”

The samurai laughed and struck his leather-armoured chest with a gauntleted fist. “Then you must demand it from me. I’m the oryoshi here. I enforce the law in this place.”

The words and the man’s bearing made it clear: they would have to fight. Jebu began to compose himself in the Zinja manner. Your armour is your mind. A naked man can utterly demolish a man clad in steel. Rely on nothing but the Self. Here it was, his first combat, the moment towards which his life had pointed for the last seventeen years. The bottom of his stomach felt hollow. Yet, for a Zinja, every combat was the first, and the first was like every other. So they said in the monastery.

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