Shike – Day 229 of 306

Jebu climbed the ladder to the chapel, calling hoarsely, “Yukio. Yukio-san.” As his head rose above the chapel floor he saw, first, a tiny oil lamp flickering in front of a many-coloured porcelain statue of Kwannon, seated. Then he noticed that the goddess was smiling gently down on what appeared to be four dark bundles of clothing. Jebu felt his stomach clench as he recognized the figure lying on the polished wooden floor.

“Jebu-san?” Yukio’s voice came in a whisper.

“Yukio. You are still alive?”

“Yes—unfortunately.” There was a faint chuckle. “I asked Shenzo Totomi to advise me on the best way to kill myself. He said that all samurai down through the ages would admire me if I did it as his father had in Heian Kyo, by hara-kiri. But he did not tell me this belly-cutting would hurt so much. Or that I would take so long to die. And what is the use of it? No one will know that I died this way, suffering abominably. No one knows except Shenzo Totomi and you. He is probably dead already. You will soon be killed as well. So, who will there be to tell the world of my so-glorious end?”

“Is Mirusu—gone? And your boy and girl?” Jebu had wept before, saying goodbye to Yukio. Now his eyes were dry. The shock of this took him beyond tears.

“Mirusu gave each of them the gift of oblivion. It was her final act of love for them. Neither Totomi nor I had the heart for it. Then, not wishing to see me die, she begged Totomi to stab her in the heart. At least he yielded and ended her life. I held her hand while he drove his sword into her. Then I took the kodachi that Mirusu used to cut the children’s throats, and with it I opened my belly.”

Even though it was too dark to see the terrible sight, Jebu turned away from the shadowy figure lying on the floor beside him. He was divided between anguish for Yukio and rage at his friend for being willing to inflict a mortal wound on himself, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. The Zinja code and that of the samurai were so far apart. But it would do no good to rail at Yukio now.

“Can I help you somehow, Yukio-san?”

Yukio gave a deep groan. For a long time Jebu could hear nothing but his gasping, heavy and rhythmic as ocean waves. Speech must be an enormous effort, but it was worth it, perhaps, because soon Yukio would not be able to speak at all, would never speak again.

“I will die slowly and in great agony, Jebu-san, or I will die quickly and easily. It is up to you.”

Jebu’s body went cold. “You can’t ask that of me.”

“If not you, who can I ask? Totomi would have done it, but I wanted you. You knew that some day you would have to do this last favour for me, didn’t you? You knew all along. Your Zinja rule lets you slay enemies by the hundreds. Surely, then, you can give death as a kindness to a friend.”

Jebu began to unlace his chest armour. He remembered that he was carrying, in a secret pocket, the one drug in the Zinja pharmacopoeia that could help Yukio now. He knelt beside his friend and took his hand. The smell of blood was overpowering.

“Yukio, I can free you from your pain. I can give you a potion. You will fall asleep at once. I will stay here with you until you have passed over. Wait a moment. I’ll get some wine.”

Yukio’s hand squeezed Jebu’s with surprising strength, crushing the knuckles together painfully. “No, I refuse, Jebu. I absolutely refuse to die that way.”

“Why?” Jebu’s voice was hoarse with suffering. “Must I kill you? Is that the only way?”

“I will not die in my sleep. A filthy death. I want to know what is happening to me. To die as a man. Not an unconscious piece of meat.” Yukio’s words came between gasps. “I want to feel the sword. It is the cleanest way to die.”

Jebu felt something break within him. “All right. It will be the sword, then, as you ask.”

“You must hurry, please, Jebu-san. They will be here any moment.”

Grief was an iron ball in Jebu’s chest. He had come to love this man even more than he loved his father, Taitaro. He put his hand on his sword hilt and began to slide the blade from its scabbard.

“I do this only because I know I won’t have to suffer long,” he said. “No matter how terrible the load of sorrow I bear, it will be but for a moment. Outside the chapel Arghun and his men wait to give me peace.”

“We will meet again in another life, Jebu-san,” Yukio whispered.

“We Zinja do not believe that men and women are reborn after they die. Nirvana is death.”

“Warriors like us are not worthy of Nirvana. We will see each other again. Strike now, Jebu. You will be as much a bringer of mercy as the goddess there who watches us. Your steel will end my agony.”

Once again a poem made its presence known in Jebu’s mind, a last verse to share with Yukio. Now he was able to weep. His eyes burnt as the tears flooded them.

Together we roamed,
Braved the roaring ocean waves,
The hot desert sands.

Faintly, but promptly, Yukio’s voice came back with lines to complete the poem:

Together our swords in hell
Will send its guardians howling.

Why must such a mind, that could compose the ending of a poem in an instant, be obliterated in an instant? Jebu still could not relinquish his belief that life, even on the worst terms, was preferable to death. But there was no more time to deliberate. He drew his short, heavy sword from its sheath and knelt beside Yukio, so he could see his friend’s exposed neck in the dim light. He avoided looking at the dreadful wound below.

“Strike,” Yukio whispered, “and burn this house down.”

Many times Jebu had gone into a trance in battle and had killed without knowing what he was doing; later he was unable to remember how he had fought. This moment was not like that. Just as Yukio wanted to be aware of death, so Jebu refused to draw his mind away from his task. Never had he lived so utterly in the here and now. This room, his friend’s body, his sword, all seemed to glow with the same fire he had seen often in the depths of the Jewel of Life and Death. Still on his knees, Jebu raised his arms over his head and brought the sword down. The Zinja sword fell truly. Muratomo no Yukio was dead.

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