Shike – Day 213 of 306

Yukio smiled sadly. “Have you forgotten the years of blood and fire and famine? Do you want me to plunge the country into another war, just to save my own life?” Jebu had no answer. He wished Taitaro were there to advise them. His hand stole into his tunic pocket and fingered the Jewel of Life and Death.

“If I must flee,” said Yukio, “I can go north to Oshu where my wife and children are, where my father’s old ally, Lord Hidehira, can protect me from my brother’s hatred.”

“You are the only man in the Sunrise Land strong enough to stand up to Hideyori,” said Jebu. “If you run from him, I doubt that anyone can protect you for long.”

“I will not break with my brother until I have made one last attempt to convince him that I am loyal and he has nothing to fear from me. I owe that much to our father and to our family.”

Looking at his friend, Jebu felt as if he were seeing Yukio’s face for the first time. Gaunt and lined, it could have been the face of a saintly abbot—Buddhist, not Zinja—steeped in awareness of the suffering and transience of all things. He did not look like a man about to lead warriors into battle.

The glory of the Takashi is reduced to a few crimson rags drifting on the sea, Jebu thought, and now the glory of Muratomo no Yukio withers before my eyes.

From a letter from Muratomo no Yukio to Muratomo no Hideyori:

. . . All my life I have wanted only one thing, to be with my family. Our father was torn from us when I was an infant, and from that day to this my mind had never been at peace for a single moment. I grew up an orphan. Now I beg you, elder brother, to be a father to me. Weeping tears of blood, I beg of you to turn your wrath aside from me. I want nothing for myself. My victories were your victories. If my success in war has made you hate me, I wish I might have died on the battlefield. I have fought for only one reason, that I might expunge the disgrace, defeat and sorrow suffered by our father. I accepted the title of lieutenant and the other honours because I thought they would bring glory to the Muratomo. You are our father’s successor on earth, and I live only to serve you. All that I have done, I lay at your feet. Let me come to you and plead my innocence face-to-face. Do not spurn me, for if you do, where on this earth can I turn?

-Second Month, twelfth day


A month after Yukio sent the letter, Jebu unrolled his futon and lay down to sleep, as usual, just outside Yukio’s bedchamber. From within he heard the plaintive sound of Yukio’s flute accompanying a woman’s sweet voice raised in song. The singer was a young woman named Shizumi, whom Yukio had taken as a mistress upon his triumphal return to the capital after Shimonoseki. Besides having a beautiful voice, she was considered the finest dancer in the land. Jebu lit a lamp and sat cross-legged on his mat, revolving the Jewel of Life and Death in his fingers as the mournful music fell, note by note, on his ears. That men and women could take the crude clay of painful human existence and shape it into poetry, music, art and dance was, at times, all that made life bearable. Tonight was the night of the full moon, whose beauty fascinated poets and scholars. Jebu lay down and dozed, but sleep came with difficulty. He could not forget that it was under a full moon that Taniko had lain in his arms for the first time.

He was suddenly awakened by the sound of stealthy footsteps in a near-by room. For a moment he was still reliving that night nearly thirty years ago when Taniko’s soft footfall had roused him from sleep. Then he came back to the present. As always when he was unexpectedly awakened, he remained motionless. To the ear of a Zinja or any well-trained assassin, there was a difference between the small sounds made by a sleeping person and those made by one only pretending to be asleep. Jebu knew how to imitate those sounds. He allowed his body to shift from time to time as a sleeper would, all the while listening carefully to the movements in the next chamber. There were two, perhaps three, men on bare feet. They had avoided the singing boards placed throughout Yukio’s mansion, floorboards that would creak loudly when stepped on. That meant they had help from members of Yukio’s household.

Jebu heard a screen sliding back. Clearly the intruders were not trained to make an inaudible approach. Yukio’s samurai guards might not hear anything, but to a Zinja it was as if an ox were being led through the mansion. The enemy probably knew Jebu was outside Yukio’s room, and now that they could see him, they would try to kill him. At that very thought, Jebu heard the faint rasp of an arrow being pulled from its quiver and the creak of a bow being drawn. When he heard the archer take a sharp breath just before he let go the bowstring, he rolled to, one side. The arrow thudded into the futon. Jebu shouted an alarm, seized his naginata and sprang. The archer was still holding the bow extended when Jebu drove his stiffened fingers into the man’s windpipe, crushing it.

“Wolf! Wolf!” a man cried from behind the falling archer. At that signal more dark figures crowded into the room. Jebu swung the naginata in an arc that sliced through two of the attackers. Now there was light. The young dancer Shizumi stood in a white silk robe like the statue of a goddess, calmly holding aloft a lantern as her lover, Yukio, rushed into the fray, slashing with his long sword, recklessly naked, as if he didn’t care whether an enemy blade bit into his unprotected flesh. Jebu scanned the raiding party looking for a leader. It would be important to leave at least one of the would-be assassins alive, to find out who was trying to kill Yukio. All the attackers were ragged Heian Kyo street toughs, except for one who wore black armour and had the shaven head of a Buddhist monk. As Yukio’s guard poured into the room and blood splashed on the floor and flecked the walls, Jebu fell upon the warrior monk and knocked him senseless with the pole of his naginata.

Moments later all the attackers except the monk had been cut to bits. The monk lay in Yukio’s bedchamber, glaring sullenly as Yukio pressed the point of his sword into his throat. He was stripped of his armour and wore only his saffron under robe. According to Yukio’s guards there were twelve dead raiders in the anteroom.

“Tell me at once who sent you, or I’ll cut your throat,” Yukio demanded.

The captured assassin’s brown eyes remained opaque, his thin lips closed. “I’ll have him talking in an hour, my lord,” said the captain of the guard, anxious to make amends for his failure to protect Yukio.

“I would rather you inspected the household,” Jebu said. “Find out how many guards these men had to bribe or kill to gain access to Lord Yukio.” He smiled at the captive. “You and I are going to drink ch’ai and talk together, as one monk with another.”

When the ch’ai was brought, Jebu sat companionably on a straw mat beside the prisoner, who refused even to tell his name. Jebu poured a cupful of the steaming green liquid for himself and a cup for the monk. To the monk’s cup he added a white powder from a paper packet. When he held out the cup, the monk pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head. Still smiling, Jebu reached over and pressed a spot under the monk’s ear. The shaven-headed man’s mouth dropped open, though he remained seated upright. Jebu put his hand over the monk’s face, pinching his nostrils together and tilting his head back. He poured ch’ai down the captive’s throat.

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