Shike – Day 203 of 306

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.

The battle had moved eastwards, pushed in that direction by the wind and tide that favoured the Takashi. Smoke billowed over the water from burning vessels. At last Jebu saw Yukio’s ship, grappled to a junk twice its size with the Red Dragon painted on its largest sail. That could be the Imperial ship or Notaro’s flagship, thought Jebu, unless, like the junk he had just captured, it was a decoy. A Takashi sekibune, a large galley, closed in, and over a hundred warriors charged across spiked planks into the stern of Yukio’s Green Castle. Two more enemy galleys were approaching. They must know they’ve got Yukio trapped, Jebu thought. He ordered the captain of Soaring Crane to put on more sail. They were close enough now to see Yukio, a small figure in white-laced armour at the centre of a dwindling knot of Muratomo samurai, his back to the rail. Closer and closer Jebu’s ship drew. Now Yukio turned and saw Soaring Crane bearing down on him. He waved his sword and began cutting his way out of the Takashi ring surrounding him. With arrows and spears falling all about him, he ran and leaped across the gap between Green Castle and Soaring Crane. For a moment he tottered on the railing until Jebu seized his arms and pulled him to the deck with a thump.

“Magnificent, Lord Yukio,” Moko exclaimed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man jump that far.”

“Fear transformed me into a grasshopper.” Yukio laughed.

“The battle is going badly for us,” said Jebu as they pulled away from the cluster of enemy galleys that had almost finished Yukio.

Yukio glanced up at the sun, which now stood almost at the zenith. “Moko, you’d better confer the mark of divine favour on us while the wind is still blowing towards our fleet.”

“At once, my lord.” Moko went below. When he returned he held a large wooden box cradled in his arms. Two serving men followed him carrying a stack of wicker cages on a pallet. Moko opened the box and took out a huge Chinese rocket mounted on a three-legged stand, which he set up on the deck.

“I tested this device many times in Kamakura, and it worked most times. A hundred things could go wrong, though. If all happens as planned, I truly will believe that the kami are with us.”

“What is it?” Jebu asked.

“Wait and watch,” said Yukio.

Moko lit the rocket’s fuse and stepped away. A ring of curious samurai had formed around him, and they gasped and drew back as, spitting yellow sparks, the rocket leaped into the air. All heads aboard Soaring Crane tilted back as the blazing trail rose as high as a gull can fly and still be visible, arcing towards the midpoint between the Muratomo and Takashi fleets. There came a thunderclap and a flash of light. The noise startled the fighting men, and a silence spread over the two fleets. Now a great square of white silk unfurled in the sky. Light as a cloud, the white banner floated and rippled on the currents of the upper air, while the men below shouted in awe.

“Indeed, Hachiman has declared for us,” whispered Moko. In Moko’s hand Jebu now saw an almost invisible white string that guided the banner in its descent. Majestically the banner drifted downward towards Yukio’s ship. Moko gave a signal to the men with the wicker cages. One by one they opened the cages, and a flock of white wood doves, the birds of Hachiman, whirled into the air with a drumming of wings. They circled around the white square of silk, then flew off to the north-east. Moments later the banner draped itself over the stern of the Soaring Crane. An utter silence had fallen over the strait.

“We could have used the exploding devices of the Chinese as weapons,” said Yukio. “But I am already blamed for unleashing Mongols against my countrymen. At least I will not be accused of bringing another horror to the Sacred Islands.” He turned away from Jebu, leaped to the gunwale of the Soaring Crane, and stood with his sword drawn where all could see him. “Nail the heavenly banner to our mast. Hachiman wills victory to the Muratomo.”

As a crewman scrambled up the ropes to the tallest of the Soaring Crane’s three masts and attached the banner there, Jebu noticed that the wind blew the flag towards the west. It was midday. The wind had shifted. Now it was behind the Muratomo ships.

Within the hour the Takashi fleet was falling back in disorder. Directed by a system of flag signals Yukio had learned from the Mongols, the Muratomo regrouped and sailed to the attack. Yukio’s standing order to concentrate fire on the crewmen of the enemy junks and galleys soon had its effect. Stricken Takashi ships wallowed and spun in the powerful westwards-flowing current, the samurai on board helpless targets for Muratomo archers. Takashi ships crashed into one another, driven against the northern shore of Shimonoseki Strait below the town called Dannoura.

“When the tide ran against us,” said Yukio, “we had all of the Inland Sea at our backs and plenty of room to run before the Takashi. Now the current is driving them into the narrows, and there is no space for them to manoeuvre.”

Some Takashi samurai beached their ships and swam to shore, but they died there under volleys of arrows fired by former allies gathered on the cliffs above them. As one ship after another in the Takashi fleet was captured, sunk or burst into flame, the balance of numbers shifted over to the Muratomo. Now an arm of the Muratomo fleet, some of the junks designed by Moko that were so much faster than those of the Takashi, outraced the enemy and blocked their escape route into the western sea.

The man who had nailed up the white banner was still aloft. Now he shouted, “I see His Imperial Majesty. He’s on a red-painted junk with gold dragons painted on the after cabin. He’s just come out on deck with his courtiers around him.”

Yukio peered in the direction of the man’s pointing arm. “The Emperor is the only strength they have left. We must capture him. I see his ship.” He snapped orders to the captain of Soaring Crane, who relayed them to his crew. The junk plunged through the smoky chaos of ships locked in combat, relentless in its pursuit of the Emperor’s vessel. Yukio gripped the rail, staring ahead, oblivious to the arrows and spears that showered down on him.

There was a cry of horror from the lookout. “A woman has jumped overboard with the Emperor in her arms. His Majesty is in the sea.” Jebu stared at the ship that was their objective. His mouth dropped open. From this distance it looked as if someone had spilled a basket of flowers into the water. Men and women in the brightly coloured robes of the Court were jumping to their deaths. For a moment the bright reds, greens and blues billowed out upon the waves, then the many-layered costumes soaked up water and the courtiers sank out of sight.

“His Imperial Majesty is drowning,” Yukio roared at his crew. “Faster.” But Soaring Crane was already making all possible speed. When they arrived at the ship, there was no one left aboard. Even the crewmen, all Takashi samurai, had drowned themselves. A shout arose from one side of the Muratomo ship. Jebu ran to the rail. Yukio’s men had sighted a woman still afloat and were pulling her in with grappling rakes. Two samurai stripped off their armour and undergarments and dived naked into the water. Soon they had the woman kneeling on the deck before Yukio. She wept bitterly as torrents of salt water ran from her sodden robes.

“Who are you?” Yukio demanded.

“My name is Takashi no Harako. I was an attendant to His Imperial Majesty’s grandmother, the widow of the late Chancellor Sogamori. My husband was General of Cavalry Takashi no Mizoguchi. I am carrying his child. Now my Emperor, my lady and my husband are all dead. I beg you to let me join them beneath the waves.”

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