Shike – Day 12 of 306

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.

Now he would see. Now he would have to try to kill a man. He had been trained to do it. He knew ten thousand ways to kill. But could he really do it?

He heard hoofbeats on the stony road behind him. Taniko’s metallic voice said, “That man you killed was a servant of Lord Shima no Bokuden of Kamakura. You will answer to Lord Bokuden and his allies, oryoshi.”

Jebu kept his eyes on the samurai. “Get back, my lady, back behind everyone else.”

“I am responsible for my father’s servant.”

“And I am responsible for you. Back. Now.” He admired her courage. It was what he expected, having seen her confront her father.

The samurai smiled broadly. Several of his front teeth were missing; others were yellow. “Your father’s name means nothing here, my lady. This is Muratomo territory, and I am their ally. We are the only true warriors in the land, living and dying by the sword. We’re not effeminate courtiers like the Takashi. How typically Takashi for your father to send you this way with no more escort than a monk armed with a sewing needle. Armed monks are fit only to clean fish. I’ll kick this monk into the sea where he belongs, and then I’ll take charge of you, little lady.”

Jebu said, “If you force me to fight, one of us will die. Perhaps both of us. Perhaps others, too.”

“Either kill him or be killed yourself,” Taniko said. “That’s what my father hired you for. Don’t sit there and argue.”

“I’m obliged by the rule of my Order to warn him.”

The samurai laughed, threw out his chest and squared his shoulders, his armour creaking and rattling. “Warn me? Warn me? I am Nakane Ikeno, son of Nakane Ikenori, who put down the Abe in the land of Oshu and slew Abe Sadato, their champion. I am the grandson of Nakane Ikezane, who fought against Takashi Masakado, captured him and sent his rebellious head back to Heian Kyo. I am the great-grandson of—”

Jebu, sitting easily in his saddle with his reins loose and his fists on his hips, interrupted. “You are an ape and the son of an ape and the grandson of an ape. As for me, I am nothing. I have no family name. My father was an unknown in the Sunrise Land. I have done nothing. I come from nowhere and I go nowhere.” Jebu touched the Zinja emblem on his chest. Ikeno’s eyes flickered to the blue and white circle of silk and widened slightly. Jebu went on, “I want nothing and I fear nothing. If you kill me you will have accomplished nothing, and no one will care. Let us pass.”

“Am I supposed to be terrified because you’re a Zinja, boy? The Zinja are cowards who kill by stealth. And you’re a coward, or you’d challenge me like a man. Why should I give way before someone who calls himself nothing?”

“Air is nothing. Yet a windstorm can destroy a city. Stand aside, ape.” Even as he spoke, Jebu repeated to himself the sayings that quieted his mind and filled his body with the power of the Self. Rely on nothing under heaven. You will not do the fighting. The Self will do the fighting.

Ikeno bellowed, “You dare call me an ape and insult my ancestors? I’ll see you die a shameful death. You will not be burned or buried. Your body will lie above ground to be eaten by dogs, and your bones will be bleached in the rain and the sun.”

“The lickspittles of the Muratomo can kill only unarmed porters.” Now Jebu was deliberately goading Ikeno.

Ikeno’s long, heavy sword flashed out of its scabbard with a hiss, and he spurred his horse. Jebu remained where he was until Ikeno was upon him. Then, as Ikeno’s sword came around, he threw himself flat on Hollyhock’s back, hugging the horse’s neck, and the samurai sword whistled through the air above him. Jebu heard the screams as Ikeno’s horse hurtled on towards the remaining porter and the three women, who all turned their horses and fled from him. Ikeno was far down the narrow path, still waving his sword over his head, before he could stop his horse, turn around and come back for a second try at Jebu.

Jebu glanced at Ikeno’s three tsuibushi. They stood open-mouthed and staring, showing no interest in joining the fight.

With a rattle of hooves Ikeno was on him again. Jebu jerked his horse to one side and Ikeno thundered harmlessly past, the sword slashing through empty air. I told you I was nothing, thought Jebu.

Cursing, Ikeno jumped down from his horse and threw the reins to one of the tsuibushi. He ran at Jebu, reaching with leather-gloved hand to pull him down from the saddle. Without any prompting from Jebu, Hollyhock reared back on his hind legs, and Ikeno had to halt his rush and jump back to avoid the flailing front hooves. Jebu felt waves of pleasure rising within him and radiating out to Hollyhock, to Ikeno, to the mountain, to the ocean. They were all part of one stately dance, and time seemed to slow so that he was able to turn his head and look for Taniko. As he expected she was looking at him at the same instant, just as Hollyhock had known exactly when to rear up and check Ikeno’s attack. Taniko’s eyes, wide with awe and fascination, looked straight into Jebu’s, and he saw what Taitaro meant when he said that the eyes are more beautiful than any jewel. And he knew that the Self was looking at the Self. They both turned away at the same moment and he found himself looking into Ikeno’s bloodshot eyes, full of anger and befuddlement. Jebu felt compassion for Ikeno. You do not know who you are, he thought.

He drew the short Zinja sword, which Ikeno had called a sewing needle. It was small indeed, compared to Ikeno’s sword. He swung his leg over the saddle and dropped lightly to the ground. Ikeno gripped his sword with both hands, holding it before him in the samurai attack stance, and took a step towards Jebu.

“I’ll slice that smile off your face and your head from your body, monk.”

Ikeno lifted his great sword over his head to bring it down on Jebu. At that same moment, taking three quick steps towards Ikeno, Jebu drew his own blade back, one-handed, then whipped it around in an arc completed so quickly the sword seemed at one moment to be poised over Jebu’s right shoulder and at the very next to be beside the left. Jebu relaxed, dropping his hands to his sides. He knew he had killed Ikeno.

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