Shike – Day 219 of 306

The fort was actually a large old manor, a scattering of low wooden buildings perhaps fifty years old, in more peaceful times the mountain retreat of some nobleman. The only fortifications were the newly built log palisade and a few square wooden guard towers. The tumbling-down, one-storey halls were crowded with samurai and foot soldiers taking their ease, laughing and talking, gambling, quarrelling. From a distant house Jebu heard the tinkle of musical instruments and women’s voices. Discipline appeared lax; some of the men were drunk. Heads turned as Jebu and Totomi were led into the central courtyard.

“A hulk like that ought to be a wrestler, not a monk,” said a voice in the crowd.

“He’ll be shorter by a head when our executioner gets done with him,” said another.

The commander of the fort strode out of the doorway of the central hall. He wore a blue robe richly brocaded with silver. His face was square and hard, all bone and muscle, the mouth set in the harsh, lipless line Jebu had seen under many a samurai helmet in combat. He has the suspicious eye of his master, Hideyori, Jebu thought, “I am Captain Shinohata. I am a kenin, a vassal of the Lord Shogun,” said the commander, his accent revealing another eastern warrior. “And who might you be?”

Jebu knew that the high-ranking samurai known as kenin owed allegiance to Hideyori alone. They were pillars of the new Kamakura government.

“I am Mokongo, priest of the Todaiji Temple in Nara,” said Jebu in a commanding voice. In the edges of his vision he could see a crowd gathering. These idle troops, he knew, lacked amusement and would be delighted to see a monk’s shaved head rolling in the dirt.

“Be careful what tone you use with me, priest,” said Shinohata with contempt. “Six of your sort met their deaths yesterday because their answers did not please me.”

“It is a great sin to kill the servants of Buddha, bringing down terrible curses on all who share the guilt,” said Jebu, putting all the authority he could muster into his voice. A murmuring arose in the crowd of soldiers around him, whether of fear or anger it was impossible to tell.

“We have our orders,” the captain replied. “Yukio and his henchmen must be brought to justice even if a thousand innocent men have to be slain.” In spite of the merciless words, there was a note in his voice almost of pleading. This man is not comfortable with what he does, thought Jebu. He felt the excitement of one trying to lift a heavy stone, who finds the right spot to set a lever. He cast his eyes down and folded his hands piously.

“Such talk distresses me. My life has been dedicated to ahimsa, harmlessness to all sentient beings.”

In that same troubled tone Shinohata said, “Agree to turn back now, Priest Mokongo, and you have nothing to fear from me and my men.”

“That cannot be,” said Jebu calmly. “Like you, I have my orders.”

“Why must you pass this barrier, priest?”

Relying on the Self to guide him through encounters such as this, Jebu had prepared no answers in advance. Even his assumed name and temple had just come to him as he spoke. Now he remembered that the Todaiji was one of the great Nara temples that had been burned by the Takashi as punishment for supporting the uprising of Motofusa and Mochihito in Heian Kyo. Most of its monks had been killed in that catastrophe. Why had the Self chosen such an unlikely place for Jebu to claim as his temple? Then inspiration came to him.

“Know, Captain Shinohata, that the temple I serve, the Todaiji, was burned by the Takashi in the late War of the Dragons. By order of His Imperial Majesty, it is now to be rebuilt. We surviving monks of the Todaiji are going to every part of the Sacred Islands asking each to give his gift to aid this holy work. My party has been charged with travelling through the provinces on the Hokurikudo, obtaining promises of offerings. If you choose to kill us rather than let us pass, you merely release us from a life of suffering. Doubtless our martyrdom will earn us a reward in incarnations to come.”

A voice from the crowd of samurai called, “Please let them pass, Lord Shinohata. These are no ordinary monks but holy men from one of the greatest temples in the land. If you spare them, you may balance the bad karma we brought upon ourselves by killing those monks yesterday.”

“The Takashi never won another battle after they burned the temples at Nara,” another man said. The samurai tended to be more in awe of religion than either Court aristocrats or commoners, Jebu thought. It went with the uncertainty of their lives.

“I’m of a mind to let you go through,” said Shinohata. “If I kill every monk who comes up this road, my karma will surely be as heavy as one of these mountains. But I must be sure you are what you claim to be.” He thought for a moment. “If you are seeking contributions, Priest Mokongo, you must be carrying a solicitation scroll to read to those whom you approach. Let us hear it, and I will judge if your mission is truly what you say it is.”

For a moment Jebu’s mind went blank. Then the Self came to his rescue. He remembered the scroll of poems Yukio had mentioned. And a flood of phrases from Buddhist literature filled his mind. Part of his early training as a Zinja had included familiarization with the dominant religions of the land, and later he had often listened to sermons by Buddhist monks.

Jebu turned to Totomi, who was staring at him apprehensively, and held out his hand. “The scroll, please.”

After a moment’s puzzlement Totomi remembered, took Yukio’s scroll out of his sleeve and handed it to Jebu. Jebu stepped up to the veranda of Shinohata’s headquarters building and positioned himself so no one could get behind him and read the scroll. He opened the scroll and, trying to look as if he were reading, he began to speak in a resonant voice.

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