Shike – Day 128 of 306

“That means nothing here.”

“You are goading me. I’m a better swordsman than you are.”

“Possibly.” He’s right, Jebu thought. I’m goading him. These last six months have been as trackless as this white mist we’re in. It bothers me as much as it does him. It puts me at the mercy of my feelings. I have no direction, no purpose. I’m lost. There’s nothing to hold to.

Moko suddenly appeared, looking comical in a broad, flat Chinese helmet. “I beg of you, masters, don’t quarrel. The only thing the men have left is their faith in your leadership. And as for me, if either one of you hurt the other, I would kill myself.”

“You’re more liable to be killed by one of us,” said Jebu gruffly, glad to see him, “if you wear that Chinese helmet.”

“Anyone who can get close enough to kill me can get close enough to recognize me,” said Moko. “And I have no right to wear a samurai helmet.” On their long march Moko had become a sort of quartermaster for samurai. He led the baggage train, kept track of stocks of food and trading goods, and saw to the welfare of the women and servants. He negotiated with the peasants whose rice and vegetables they took, giving promissory notes and persuading them that the samurai might actually return one day to pay for what they took. Honest or not, it made it easier for the peasants to give and the samurai to take.

“These troops you’ve just defeated were sent out by the governor of Hochwan,” Moko said. “He doesn’t know whether he’s subject to the Sung Emperor or the Mongols. Like most of Szechwan, he hasn’t had a message from either overlord in six months. But he knows that both sides consider us an enemy, so he thought he’d perform a service to his masters, whomever they turn out to be, by eliminating us from the countryside.”

“How do you know all this, Moko?” Yukio asked.

“Our warriors took some prisoners and they brought them to me for safekeeping. They were quite willing to talk to me.”

“Good, now kill them.”

Jebu’s stomach contracted. “Why not let them go?”

“We are samurai. We do not suffer from confusion about whether we are fighting men or monks. Moko, round up the first six samurai you meet and tell them they are ordered to behead the prisoners.” He turned to Jebu, his rounded eyes blazing. “Don’t argue with me.” Jebu held his tongue and turned away, his shoulders sagging.

Shaking his head slightly, Moko bowed. “One more thing,” he said. “There is an old monk who came along after the battle looking for both of you. He is short, white-haired and wears a grey robe, like a Zinja.”

Jebu felt his heart beat faster.

“Finally,” said Yukio.

“Shall I bring him to you?” said Moko.

“At once,” said Jebu.

The old man emerged out of the mist looking little changed from the night, years ago, when Jebu had left him on the beach below the burning Waterfowl Temple. His beard had grown almost to his waist, hiding the white rope around his neck. Age was thinning his white hair.

He and Jebu looked at each other a long time in silence. Droplets of water dripped from a tree branch to a puddle on the ground. “Why did you not come to me before, sensei?” Jebu whispered.

“I had other things to attend to.”

Jebu turned to Yukio, whose eyes were big with awe. “Lord Muratomo no Yukio, I present my father, Taitaro, former abbot of the Waterfowl Temple.”

Yukio bowed deeply. “Sensei.”

Taitaro bowed in turn. “Lord Yukio, your fame has spread throughout the Sacred Islands and a good part of China. Future generations of Muratomo, when they go into battle, will proudly claim you among their ancestors.”

“You are too generous, sensei,” Yukio said, bowing again to express his reverence for Taitaro’s attainment. “I have been hearing of the great Abbot Taitaro ever since I met your son.”

Jebu and Taitaro embraced. Jebu felt happy and at peace for the first time in many months. Affection surged up within him like a spring bursting out of the ground and spread to Taitaro, to Yukio, to Moko. Moko, who had never met Taitaro before, stood to one side, his bowl-shaped helmet in his hands, tears running down his cheeks.

“Did Governor Liu tell you how to find us, sensei?” Yukio asked.

“The word was passed from him to me through the Order,” said Taitaro. “I must tell you, though—that good, wise and strong man is gone. Both he and the general who was sent to arrest you were executed by Chia Ssu-tao for letting you escape.”

Grief was a great weight in Jebu’s chest. “I warned him not to go back to the capital with that general. I mourn him.”

“He was one of us, Jebu,” said Taitaro. “He is no more to be mourned than the ashes of our dead which we scatter on the wind. He would not want it.”

“Chia Ssu-tao would have let Kweilin be overwhelmed by the Mongols,” said Yukio. “He tried to punish us for defending it. Now he has slain one of the finest officials in the land. He is a poison at the heart of the Sung empire. How can it survive with such as him ruling it?”

“I am more concerned about how you are to survive,” said Taitaro. “I have come to invite you to accompany me to a temple of the Ch’incha, where this little river forks away from the Min. It is a day’s ride from here. There I hope to be granted a vision that will help to guide you.”

“Just you, Jebu and I?” asked Yukio. “This countryside is hostile.”

“It only seems so to you. Now that you have driven off the troops of Hochwan, you need fear no further attacks.”

“Perhaps only Jebu should go,” said Yukio. “He is your son and a member of your Order.”

“But—” Jebu started to say. A motion of Taitaro’s hand silenced him.

“You are the leader of these samurai,” said Taitaro. “It is not fitting that a monk who serves you should have any special knowledge that is not fully known to you as well.”

It was almost as if Taitaro knew what had been happening between the two of them, Jebu thought.

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