Shike – Day 227 of 306

Horigawa parted his lips in a smile. It was impossible to tell whether there were teeth, blackened in Court fashion, in his mouth, or whether they were all gone. What came out of that little orifice was pure venom.

“You know nothing about good lineage, Muratomo no Yukio. Those of your ancestors who were distant cousins of the Imperial family left the capital hundreds of years ago and intermarried, generation after generation, with bandits, peasants and barbarians. The few drops of Imperial blood that may remain in your body no more make you a member of the Imperial family than a few leaves tossed into the ocean could turn into ch’ai. You are common. You and your kind are useful only to do work that is too bloody and dirty for your betters. You samurai tried to rise above your station. In my lifetime I have seen first Domei, then Sogamori, and now your brother presume to give orders to the Emperor himself. I am not betraying my country, because this ceased to be my country when the samurai took control of it.

“I hoped you and Hideyori would destroy each other, but you proved too stupid and easy for him to defeat, and now Hideyori is all-powerful. To bring him down I must turn to a foreigner, the Great Khan. I did not come here to witness your death, Yukio, which is now a foregone conclusion, nor the death of this huge oaf who is your friend. I came here merely to see whether you would accept Arghun’s offer, which the Great Khan insisted must be made. Had you agreed to rule the Sunrise Land as the deputy of the Great Khan, it would have been a setback for me. Fortunately, you remain stupid to the end. So I will now hasten to Heian Kyo to urge the court to submit to the Great Khan. The Mongol army will enter our land, not as invaders, but at the invitation of the Son of Heaven. Led by Arghun and Torluk and their men, who know these islands and the fighting methods of the samurai, they will crush that upstart who calls himself Shogun, and obliterate the samurai. With the Great Khan’s approval I will be appointed Regent, ruling the Sacred Islands in the name of the Emperor, as the Fujiwara did of old. The tribute we will be required to send Kublai Khan will be a small price to pay for the restoration of correct and honourable government.” With a small smile Horigawa raised his hand in a parody of a bosatsu’s blessing. “Muratomo no Yukio, I bid you farewell.”

Jebu sprang. His whole attention was focused on Horigawa, who had turned away. Torluk’s square, grey shape eclipsed that of the prince. Shifting the direction of his movement, Jebu checked his lunge. Grinning, Torluk drew a concealed dagger from his fur-topped boot.

“Since each finger of an empty-handed Zinja is a dagger, I thought it not dishonourable to bring my own dagger to our parley. Come on, you devil. I’ve always hoped I might be the one to kill you.”

“Don’t trifle with me, Torluk.”

Arghun had swept Horigawa off his feet like a sack of rice and was bundling him back to his palanquin. A file of archers, arrows nocked in their bows, was trotting up the mountainside. In a moment Horigawa would be gone. Torluk, shifting the dagger from hand to hand, stood blocking the way. The Self took charge of Jebu’s movements. When Torluk came at Jebu with the knife in his right hand, Jebu put out his own right hand as if to ward off the blow, and Torluk grabbed Jebu’s forearm with his free hand, to pull him towards the dagger point. Jebu turned and slid past his opponent’s left side, twisting and lifting his arm so that Torluk’s elbow locked and he was pushed off-balance. Pulling free of Torluk’s grip, Jebu threw his shoulder against the smaller man’s back. The shove sent Torluk reeling over the edge of the path. He rolled down the steep incline. Faster and faster he tumbled, striking shrubs and outcroppings of rock with a force that was more than flesh could bear. At last he crashed to the bottom of the ravine, and lay still, half-buried in snow. Arghun shoved Horigawa through the purple curtains. As the bearers raised the gilded box, Arghun spoke a last rumbling word to the prince.

“The man who just fell protecting you is more valuable to me than an entire army. If he is dead, your actions in Heian Kyo had better be worth that price.”

Jebu started to rush the palanquin, but it was already too late. Six warriors stood along the path between him and Horigawa, their short, horn-reinforced Mongol bows drawn, steel-tipped arrows pointing at Jebu’s chest. Beyond the palanquin more archers stood ready. His armour might be able to absorb most of the arrows, but they would surely stop him before he reached Horigawa, and he would die uselessly. Once again he would have to forgo vengeance. He stood, trembling with frustrated rage, as the palanquin bobbed off down the mountainside. Arghun ordered some of his men to climb down into the ravine to retrieve Torluk. Even if the tuman-bashi had survived the fall, he would not fight in this battle.

“I could kill you both now and save the lives of many of my men,” Arghun called to Jebu and Yukio. “But I remain true to our word. Go, get behind your wall. You will die soon enough.”

As Jebu and Yukio, turning their backs on the Mongols, walked through the gate, Yukio said, “Jebu-san, I do not want to do any killing today. I do not want to die as I have lived. I have practised the warrior’s trade as best I could. I liberated the Sacred Islands from the Takashi, which, I believe, I was sent into this world to do. It has not been my karma to enjoy ease and honours. Now all that is left to me is to depart this world. I want my leave-taking to be beautiful. I want to be with my good wife and my children for a time, to read to them the Lotus sutra which has always been my favourite. Will you make it possible for me to do that, Jebu-san? Will you hold them off long enough for me to die as I want to?”

Hot tears filled Jebu’s eyes. A poem came to him, a final gift from the Self. He spoke it to Yukio.

The lone pine,
The lightning flashes.
The mountain top is bare.

Yukio said, “You are the mountain top, Jebu-san.” Tears were running down his cheeks. “Men thought me a giant, but I was always standing on your shoulders.” He gripped Jebu’s arm hard for a moment, then turned away, his dark green robe swirling.

Jebu went to the samurai quarters to arm himself. Yukio’s men had already put on their armour and helmets. When Jebu told them Yukio had refused Kublai Khan’s offer of the kingship of the Sacred Islands, they were overcome with admiration. Several of them wept.

“To this day I have regretted that I did not kill myself when my father did, even though I was happy to serve Lord Yukio,” said Shenzo Totomi, wiping his face with the sleeve of his under robe. “Now I am grateful that I can die with his hero—this god.”

“Let no man die until he has sent a hundred of the enemy into oblivion before him,” said Jebu. And Yukio’s last army, twelve warriors strong, went out to meet the Mongols.

Alone, moving unhurriedly, Jebu began to don his suit of black armour. He tied the belt of his broad, short Zinja sword in the world-serpent knot, remembering the chant of the monks when Taitaro presented it to him on his initiation day: “The sword is the Self, cutting through matter and time and penetrating to true insight.” He took down his naginata from the wall, a weapon so big only he could wield it. Who could withstand his naginata? Only one man, and he wasn’t fighting today. As he armed himself he composed his mind, making each action part of his meditation. He repeated the statements of Zinja attitudes he had been taught as a child: I am going into battle now. I am not concerned about the outcome. I am concerned only that I fight with all the mind and strength I possess.

It is strange, though, he thought, interrupting the chain of affirmations. Even though I have entered every battle with the belief that it may be my last, I have never felt so certain that I am going to die as I do this day. He could hear the shouts of battle and the ringing of steel, but he knew there was no hurry. Today, the Mongols would not be able to use their mass tactics. They would have to come at the fort one at a time and engage in single combat, to the delight of the samurai. Let the other men have their moments of glory before I enter the battle. He took the Jewel out of the inner pocket in his robe and revolved it in his fingertips. To his surprise, instead of clearing his mind as it usually did, the heart of the Jewel showed him Taniko. She was looking right at him, with that keen, sparkling gaze that had always delighted him. The Jewel shows me what I have lost and so resigns me to death, he thought. Taniko blamed me for the deaths of those she loved, and now she is Hideyori’s consort. Yukio will surely die today, and then I have no one to live for. The Zinja bound me to Yukio for so many years that he has come to mean more to me than the Order itself. It is good that I die with him today. He looked once again into the heart of the Jewel and saw there a glowing emptiness, the Void from which all things spring, not a darkness but a blinding light. His mind filled with that light, he tied his headcloth, shouldered his naginata and went out.

As he crossed the small yard to the gateway he heard, above the clangour of battle, the pure, sweet notes of a flute floating from the tile-roofed house where Yukio and his family prepared for death. Yukio had courted Mirusu by playing the flute under her window night after night. Perhaps it was she who had asked him to play now.

At the gate, six men were crowded together. Two more, in the watchtower, stood with their tall samurai bows ready.

“Each time they rush for the fort, one of us goes out to hold them off,” said Kanefusa, a big northern warrior who was a cousin of Yukio’s wife. “Their archers have killed three of our men, but we’ve killed many of theirs.”

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