Shike – Day 206 of 306

“The trick I have in mind is an old and obvious one, but it is to our advantage that they will not expect you to try to escape. After all, you have never been outside Heian Kyo. You would not even know how to speak to a common person to ask for help. You are as much a prisoner of your way of life as of the Muratomo. As for the Muratomo, their discipline is slack. They’ve been fighting for five years, and they want to rest.”

“But where can you take us?”

“To Kamakura, to the one person in the Sacred Islands who can save the boy’s life, the Lady Shima Taniko. She is the child’s grandmother and she is said to be close to Hideyori.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth.

There was a cry of horror from the old lady. “She is the daughter of Lord Bokuden and the wife of Prince Horigawa. Why should she of all people help the princess?”

Jebu turned to her. “She, better than anyone, knows that pair for the despicable scoundrels that they are. When she realizes that they intend to kill her grandson, she will do everything in her power to thwart them.”

“Kamakura,” the princess wailed. “That is the end of the world. Muratomo no Hideyori is there. How can we be safe in Kamakura?”

“If the Lady Taniko can persuade Lord Hideyori to place you and your son under his protection, Kamakura will be the safest place for you in all the Sacred Islands. Can you ride a horse?”

“Certainly not.”

“A pity.” He turned again to the old lady. “Can you find two trustworthy servants who will take her and the boy out of here in a sedan chair? She can wear the robes of a lady-in-waiting, and the boy can hide under her skirts.”

“Women of low rank enter and leave the Rokuhara regularly,” said the lady-in-waiting. “As you say, the guards are lax. I can supply the costume she needs and find two men who will not know whom they are carrying.”

“Good. Where the Sanjo Avenue leads to the foot of Mount Higashi there is a bridge across a small stream. I will be waiting there.”

Jebu tethered his horse at the far end of the bridge, recrossed it and seated himself on a huge boulder from which he could look out over Heian Kyo. There were so many new buildings going up that the capital reminded him of Kublai Khan’s Khan Baligh. The smell of fresh-cut wood and the ringing of hammers filled the air. Oxen strained at wagonloads of timber. It was a carpenter’s paradise. If Moko were not already rich, and if the carpenters’ guild of Heian Kyo were not so rigid about whom they allowed to work in the city, he could have made a fortune here.

It was dusk when a plain sedan chair carried by two servants emerged from the nearby Rokuhara and approached the bridge. Shouldering his naginata, Jebu stepped forward and identified himself to the bearers. He heard the princess’s frightened voice from within the chair’s curtains. But at that moment the shout of warriors’ voices and the clatter of hooves arose from within the Rokuhara’s walls.

“Over the bridge,” Jebu snapped to the bearers. “Run!”

Casting terrified looks at him, the men picked up the chair and ran for the bridge.

“Stop! Halt with that chair!” The voice that shouted at them was familiar. A band of Muratomo samurai raced across the moat and up the avenue towards them. Behind them, riding on the shoulders of a brawny, half-naked servant, was Prince Sasaki no Horigawa.

“Run!” Jebu called. But the bearers, looking back, recognized the prince and obeyed his order to stop. Jebu stood blocking the bridge. A circle of bystanders formed, a healthy distance from Jebu and the samurai. Jebu stared at Horigawa. The old prince’s face was more withered and shrunken than Jebu remembered it, but his back was straight and the hands resting on his servant’s head did not tremble.

Jebu had not seen Horigawa since that day, over twenty years ago, when he fled from the guardhouse at Daidoji. All those years he had dreamed of killing the prince, knowing all the while that to harbour such a desire went against all his Zinja training. Even the years of contemplating the Jewel day after day did not help where Horigawa was concerned. He had prayed that the prince might die during the War of the Dragons, as had so many thousands of others, so that he would be relieved of this foolish desire for revenge. Karma, it seemed. would not have it so.

Now he wanted nothing more than to plunge into the midst of Horigawa’s samurai, whirling his naginata to knock the guards aside and lop the prince’s head off. He realized that, as had happened so many years before at Daidoji, he could not kill Horigawa and accomplish his purpose. The instant he left his post at the bridge, the samurai would seize Kazuko and her son, Sametono.

“When I heard that you had visited the Rokuhara I knew some evil was in the air,” said Horigawa. “We were not able to move quickly enough to stop this renegade daughter of the Imperial house and her tainted offspring from escaping. Her corrupt servant has paid with her death for her part in this escapade, though. Now that the princess has admitted her guilt by fleeing, she shall stand trial at once. Aside, monk, or you die on the spot.”

“If the princess is a renegade and the child is tainted, what of a prince who served the Takashi cause for a quarter of a century, to switch sides only yesterday, as it were, to the Muratomo?” Jebu could see approval in the eyes of the samurai who faced him. They would obey the prince’s orders as a matter of duty, but they would do it with reluctance.

“I do not need to justify myself to a bandit masquerading in monk’s robes,” Horigawa said with a sneer. “Step aside.”

For answer Jebu took a firm grip on his naginata and set his feet wide apart in the stance called the Bear at Bay.

“Kill him,” Horigawa said.

“But, Your Highness, this monk has fought beside Lord Yukio in all the great battles of this war,” said the scarred samurai officer, Captain Ikyu, who had let Jebu enter the Rokuhara a few hours earlier.

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