Shike – Day 202 of 306

“I’ll go home now.”

“Good,” said Eisen with a chuckle. “That samurai who has been following you will be grateful. Sitting out there in the cold, damp forest must have made him quite miserable.” Surprised, Taniko looked where Eisen was looking and saw a flash of sunlight on metal in the forest sloping down from the temple doorway. One of Hideyori’s men, no doubt. She wouldn’t have been able to commit seppuku even if she’d tried. Angrily, she thought, Hideyori is not trying to protect me, he is trying to control me. Even this realization seemed trivial, though, beside the wondrous new feeling which made all discontent seem unimportant. As she gazed at the rising sun the light within her seemed to shine more brightly. I did not kill myself, she thought, but this night I died and was reborn.

Chapter Sixteen

It was the hour of the serpent. The Inland Sea sparkled in the morning light, darkening to indigo whenever a cloud crossed the sun. Jebu, in black-laced monk’s armour, stood in the bow of the war junk Soaring Crane. With the weather so fine, the two fleets would certainly fight to a finish. Strange, how the well-being of the kami of sky and water could mean so much suffering for humankind.

Right now, the kami seemed to have sided with the Takashi. Through the play of light and shadow seven hundred ships of the Red Dragon advanced grandly from the west, borne on the tide rip flowing through the Shimonoseki Strait. The thunder of the huge war drums on their afterdecks rolled over the waves. The Takashi had divided their vessels into three fleets. In the van came three hundred big ships led by a row of Chinese junks bedecked with red banners, sails spread like dragon wings, eyes painted on their bows glaring ferociously. Next came two hundred ships of Takashi allies, and last came the highest Takashi nobles, including the clan chieftain Notaro and his nephew the Emperor, in two hundred more.

With wind and tide against them, the five hundred Muratomo ships were hard put to maintain any sort of battle order and were driven towards the rocky islands of Kanju and Manju. Here at the narrow western end of the Inland Sea the waves beat against forbidding cliffs on the Honshu side, while the Kyushu shore was crowded with serried ranks of samurai on horseback and on foot. Supposedly, they were allies of the Takashi, but their commanders had grown independent after five years of civil war. They would join whoever won the battle at sea.

Moko, looking fierce in full samurai armour, stood beside Jebu. Soaring Crane, like a hundred other ships that formed the heart of the Muratomo fleet, had been built at Kamakura under Moko’s direction. Moko’s ships were junks, propelled by sail rather than oars, but smaller and faster than the Chinese-built Takashi junks. Moko had followed Chinese models but tried to improve on them. His ships had fought in only one battle, at Yashima, where the Muratomo had taken the Takashi by surprise and won an easy victory. Today’s fight would be the real test. Moko had insisted on sailing aboard Soaring Crane with Jebu. If his junks were defeated, he explained, he would rather go down with them than face Lord Hideyori’s wrath. Jebu made him welcome, but was disappointed when Moko sadly told him he bore no message from Taniko.

“She has never talked to me about the death of her son,” he told Jebu. “I would certainly never raise the subject with her myself. I suspect she does not want to force me to choose between you and her, shiké. She is a lady of great grace.”

The Takashi vanguard ships were crowded with archers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and now at a signal they let fly volley after volley, hundreds of arrows at a time. The feathered shafts poured down like hail on the deck and hull of Soaring Crane. The Muratomo archers shot back, but they were at a disadvantage with the wind against them and the Takashi protected by the high hulls of their junks.

“We’re going to have to board those big ships and fight the Takashi hand to hand,” Jebu told Moko. Ordering his friend below, Jebu signalled the two steersmen at the rudder to set a collision course for one of the biggest of the Takashi ships. Muratomo samurai crowded Soaring Crane’s rails, ready with ropes and grappling hooks. Jebu braced himself as the enemy junk bore down upon them. An arrow thudded into his shoulder plates, its impact almost knocking him to the deck. The Takashi junk swerved at the last moment, as if trying to avoid the Soaring Crane, but the two ships crashed together with a boom and a scream of tortured wood. The enemy’s black hull loomed above Jebu like the wall of a fortress. Grapples flew through the air.

“Muratomo!” Jebu cried, scrambling up a rope. He poised himself on the railing of the Takashi ship, then drew his sword and threw himself at the nearest enemy samurai.

“Shoot Yukio!” shouted a Takashi officer splendid in red-laced armour. The Takashi would be disappointed, Jebu thought. Yukio had hidden himself elsewhere in his fleet.

Every defector who presented himself in the Muratomo camp had brought the same warning. The Takashi were convinced that Yukio was the sole cause of their many defeats. They could still turn the tide and overcome the Muratomo if only they could manage to kill Yukio. Hideyori they dismissed as a mere intriguer. Each Takashi samurai went into battle praying that he might be the one permitted by the kami to save the clan by destroying their worst enemy. But Takashi numbers dwindled steadily. Every day warriors eager to end the war on the winning side abandoned the Takashi and pledged themselves to the White Dragon. Before Ichinotani the deserters had come into Yukio’s camp by tens; afterwards, by hundreds. After Yukio led his newly built fleet in a surprise attack on the Takashi stronghold on Yashima island and nearly annihilated them there, great lords of ancient lineage brought thousands of warriors to aid the Muratomo. The steward of the shrine of the kami Gongen at Kumano, appointed years ago by Sogamori, held a fight between seven white cocks and seven red ones before the image of Gongen. When the white cocks killed or drove off all the red ones, he set sail with two hundred ships and two thousand men, carrying the Gongen shrine itself in the flagship. All this he placed in Yukio’s service.

Yukio welcomed the many who joined him and accepted their oaths of fealty to his brother. If today’s battle went well, it would be the last. The Takashi had nowhere to go. Inexorably Yukio had driven them westwards across the Inland Sea until they were bottled up in Shimonoseki Strait. Beyond lay only the open ocean and the inhospitable, Mongol-dominated mainland. Ten-year-old Emperor Antoku, grandson of Sogamori, still in possession of the Three Treasures, ruled over an empire of wood, the decks of the Takashi ships. He was somewhere in the fleet that faced the Muratomo today, the fleet commanded by the feckless Notaro and which was now the last hope of the Takashi.

It was now almost a year since Yukio’s victory at Ichinotani, since Atsue had gone into the Void. For much of that year Jebu had remained at the Zinja monastery of the Red Fox on Shikoku. His left lung pierced by Atsue’s dagger thrust healed slowly. A month after Yukio’s men brought him to the monastery, Taitaro arrived to nurse him. His white beard now reaching almost to his waist, Taitaro had little to say. He held the Jewel of Life and Death up for Jebu to see, when Jebu was too weak to hold it himself. Gradually, Jebu’s strength came back. As soon as he could hold a brush he composed a letter to Taniko. Although he hazily recalled that Yukio had promised to write her explaining how Atsue had died, he wanted to tell her in his own words what had happened. The letter was entirely unsatisfactory, but it was the best he could do. He sent it knowing he had to send something. She never replied. With the help of his own vitality and Zinja medicine, Jebu’s breathing was back to normal after six months, and he was able to resume training with the monastery masters. Nine months after being wounded he took ship from Shikoku to join Yukio’s fleet, just in time to be part of the victory at Yashima.

Jebu stood over the body of the samurai officer who had called for Yukio’s death and whispered the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy. The battle for the big Takashi junk had been surprisingly brief. The deck was stained red, mostly with Takashi blood. The enemy had manned the formidable ship with their least experienced warriors, probably thinking the Muratomo would be less likely to attack the bigger vessels. Many of the dead were only boys. Each, thought Jebu, would be the object of some mother’s lifelong grief, as Atsue was. The important thing now was to try to get word to Yukio that the big Chinese junks were the most negligible part of the Takashi fleet. Jebu ordered the red banners thrown over the side along with all the dead, and the white Muratomo flags run up. Yukio, he knew, was aboard the Green Castle, one of his smaller ships, where he hoped to avoid the notice of the Takashi. Appointing a crew for the captured junk, Jebu reboarded the Soaring Crane to sail in pursuit of Yukio.

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