Shike – Day 207 of 306

“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.

“That war is over,” Horigawa rasped. “It will soon be shown that our honoured Shogun’s half-brother and all who are close to him are traitors to his family and the Sunrise Land. Kill him, I say.”

A samurai drew his tall bow and let an arrow fly at Jebu. With a quick, easy swing of his naginata Jebu cut the arrow in half, and it fell, harmless, at his feet. Arrow cutting with the naginata was a daily exercise for every Zinja from the age of eight. At first the arrows used were tipped with leather balls that left a painful bruise but did not pierce the body. Later the arrows had pointed metal tips and the young monks were expected to pick off as many as twelve of them fired simultaneously at close range. Now Jebu went to work with utter concentration and instantaneous reflexes. His naginata became a blur as he chopped arrows out of the air as fast as they could be fired at him. Even as they tried to kill him, the samurai cried out with admiration at his virtuosity. Horigawa’s wrinkled face was red with rage.

“Shoot at the chair,” he called suddenly. “It is the princess we must stop, not this worthless monk.”

“No,” Jebu cried as a flight of arrows whistled over his head. They rained upon the green-curtained chair and its bearers. The two servants died without a sound. There was a choking scream from within the chair. Jebu felt rage surge like lava through his body.

“Now I will kill you as I have always wanted to,” Jebu growled, striding forward into a storm of arrows, his naginata at the ready. Arrows struck his armour and wounded him, but failed to penetrate deeply, and he ignored them. Horigawa muttered a command to the brawny man on whose back he rode, and the servant turned and ran full speed down the avenue towards the Rokuhara’s eastern gate. Jebu started to pursue them, but the samurai barred his way with a fence of swords.

“We don’t want to kill you, Master Jebu,” panted Ikyu. “We’ve done our duty, that’s all.”

“That woman and her child harmed no one,” Jebu grated.

“Most of the tens of thousands who fell in the late war were innocent of wrongdoing, too,” the scarred officer answered. “Let this end here, shiké. We do not wish to shed your blood and you do not wish to shed ours.”

“Some day I will kill Horigawa,” said Jebu. He was ashamed of the words as soon as they left his lips, but they expressed his true feelings.

“Such a desire is not worthy of you, shiké,” said the samurai leader. “Horigawa’s death at your hands would honour him, but it would do you nothing but dishonour to kill that feeble old stick of a man.”

“That feeble man has been the cause of more spilt blood in the last thirty years than the fiercest warrior who ever lived in these islands,” Jebu said. “Still, I accept your correction.” He recalled how, years ago, he had thought of the samurai as foolish and destructive, like cruel boys. Either they had learned much in the interim, or he had, and was now seeing them differently. He bowed to the samurai leader to show his respect.

“I will guard the bodies of the princess and her son until you can send servants to take them back to the Rokuhara,” Jebu said.

“Very good, shiké,” said Captain Ikyu. “We will also post guards at the approach to the bridge, but you may say your farewell to her in private.” The samurai marched away, and Jebu walked to the middle of the bridge, murmuring a prayer for the dead. The bearers lay sprawled in awkward positions, arrows protruding from their backs. Jebu gently drew the chair’s curtain aside. A woman dressed in a plum-coloured robe sat slumped forward, her long black hair hanging down like a veil. He could see at once, from her absolute stillness, that she was dead. Two arrows had gone into her back, and her skirts were soaked with blood. He took hold of her shoulders with both hands and raised the lifeless weight. Her face, which as an Imperial princess she had hidden from the world, was round and pretty, with small features. Her mouth hung open, revealing teeth dyed in the Court fashion, like rows of tiny black pearls. She had been brave. She might have been allowed to live if she had surrendered her son to the executioner. She chose instead to lose her life trying to get the child out of the Rokuhara. Under the Princess’s inert body Jebu saw a small black head and two hands clinging to her skirt. The hands moved slightly. He drew in a breath.

“I know you’re alive,” he whispered. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” the boy said softly.

“We must move quickly. I’m going to pull you out of the chair and put you on my horse. Get ready.” Jebu reached into the sedan chair with both hands, dragged the boy out from under his mother’s body, and straightened up. Clutching Sametono to his chest, Jebu ran across the bridge to his tethered horse. The guards at the other end of the bridge were only beginning to react, shouting at Jebu to halt as he leaped into the saddle and set the boy in front of him. As they galloped off, arrows flew past them. Two struck Jebu in the back, but they were not strong enough to pierce his armour, though they lodged in its plates. Sametono was silent. Jebu could feel that the boy’s body was rigid with fear. The horse plunged through the twilight along a pine-shaded path that wound up the side of Mount Higashi. The guards at the bridge had no horses, and it would be a long time before they could bring help from the Rokuhara. By that time Sametono would be safely with Moko and his men. Twenty years ago, Jebu thought, Horigawa killed our daughter. Now I have saved this boy from him. He exulted in the thought. It was far more satisfying to save a life from Horigawa than to have killed Horigawa himself.

“Where are you taking me?” Sametono asked. His small body had relaxed somewhat against Jebu’s chest.

“To your grandmother.” Jebu knew that Hideyori might yet insist on the boy’s death. And even if the gift of Sametono changed Taniko’s feelings toward Jebu, that wouldn’t matter if she needed her closeness to Hideyori to save the boy’s life. The horse breathed hard as it climbed the steep path. A three-quarter moon, rising over the mountains east of Heian Kyo, provided Jebu and his mount just enough light to see by. It had been a full moon, Jebu recalled, the night he and Taniko had pledged to love each other for ever on this same mountain. He heard a jingling of harness and a stamping of horses’ hooves ahead. Moko.

Moko and Sametono both looked woeful when Jebu said he would not make the journey to Kamakura. “I must go to Lord Yukio at once,” Jebu explained. “Something Horigawa said just now warned me that he is up to his old trick of setting samurai against samurai. Yukio must be warned, or he may not have long to live. Meanwhile, Horigawa and Bokuden will have the Tokaido searched for me, thinking I have the boy. By the time they realize I’m still in Heian Kyo I’ll be under Yukio’s protection. You and your men have a better chance of getting through, hiding Sametono among yourselves. Remember that you are to take him directly to the Lady Taniko and no one else.”

“Thank you for rescuing me, big monk,” said Sametono, looking at Jebu with that calm, intelligent gaze he remembered so well in Taniko.

“You kept still until I could reach you while your mother lay dead on top of you,” said Jebu. “You are a young man of great mental power, if you know what that means.”

“I hope I grow up to be as tall as you.”

Jebu thought, I doubt whether any of us will live to see you grow up, little boy.

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