Shike – Day 268 of 306

“She who next to the Empress herself is the most highly honoured lady in our realm now chooses to present this treasure to her exalted son, our Lord Shogun, Muratomo no Sametono.”

Munetoki rose and went over to Taniko’s screen and received from her the sword box, a work of art in itself with mother-of-pearl birds in flight inlaid on gold lacquer. Reverently, Munetoki carried the sword box across to Sametono, kneeling and bowing as he held it out to him. Sametono took the box and opened it. He took out the sword and held it up so that people could admire the black-lacquered scabbard wrapped with bands of silver and the hilt with its silver dragon. He drew the ancient straight blade one third of the way out of its scabbard as was customary for sword viewing, studying the perfectly polished steel and its wavering, shadowy temper line.

“I have written a poem for this occasion,” Sametono said, putting the sword back in its box. His ten-year-old voice, as he recited, was boyish, but firm and strong. Taniko’s heart soared with love and pride.

Two souls at war,
Duelling in a single breast
To capture the heart.
But one mind will persuade both
To turn against the true foe.

There were polite cries of appreciation from the guests. Everyone understood that the “souls” were the two swords, Kogarasu and Higekiri, the sword being traditionally the soul of the samurai. These two “souls” contended for the heart of Sametono, whose heritage combined Takashi and Muratomo. “Mind,” with which Sametono would put an end to the conflict, was the awakened mind, the Buddha nature, which Sametono, like many young samurai, was cultivating in his Zen studies. Through the search for enlightenment the country could put past feuds behind it and unite itself against the invaders. For a ten-year-old, thought Taniko, it is a brilliant poem. She looked at Jebu and saw that he was sitting with his spine rigid, weeping unashamedly. If only he and I could have had such a son, she thought. In a way, this is our son. Jebu rescued him from death and gave him to me.

Sametono made a little speech thanking his mother for the gift of Higekiri and expressing his hope that he would be worthy of the long line of ancestors who had worn it. “But the time will soon come for both the honoured Higekiri and the noble Kogarasu to be retired among our national treasures. The holy monk Eisen, with us today, is collecting subscriptions for the rebuilding of the Todaiji, the great Buddhist temple at Nara which was tragically burnt to the ground during the War of the Dragons.”

Sametono did not mention that it was his great-grandfather, Takashi no Sogamori, who had caused the burning of the temple. Listening to Sametono but unable to take her eyes off Jebu, Taniko noticed that he was now looking at the boy with an ironic smile. She wondered what special meaning the Todaiji had for Jebu.

Sametono continued, “I propose, after we have been victorious in this war, to donate both swords to Eisen Roshi, to be kept among the most precious objects in the Todaiji. I take this occasion to humbly ask that the monks of the Todaiji, as well as all other people of high and low rank, pray unceasingly to the Buddha, the saints and all the gods and goddesses for victory.”

Again there were loud cries of approval from the warriors and officials gathered in the hall. Taniko looked at Jebu and saw that he was weeping again. He did not bother to wipe his eyes with his sleeves, as most people did, but let his tears flow openly down his hard brown cheeks and into his white beard. If he cares that much for Sametono, she thought, can he not find a place in his heart for Sametono’s grandmother?

Now the guests rose and formed a line to present themselves to the Regent and the Shogun. Taniko could have left the hall, but she stayed behind the screen, watching Jebu, who towered over all others in the room, patiently waiting his turn.

Finally Jebu knelt and prostrated himself to Munetoki, identifying himself. “Welcome,” Munetoki rumbled. “I have heard much about you, shiké, from my honoured cousin, the Ama-Shogun.” Taniko watched Jebu eagerly for a reaction to Munetoki’s mentioning her. The white-bearded face remained mask-like.

“Shiké Jebu!” Sametono exclaimed before Jebu could kneel to him. The boy Shogun stood up and, in spite of his eight layers of robes bounded down the steps to throw his arms around Jebu’s waist. There were gasps of astonishment from all over the hall at this unseemly behaviour. Taniko noticed that Eisen, who stood near by, beamed approvingly.

Munetoki, as Regent, stood in place of father to Sametono. “You must return to your place at once, Your Highness,” he said in a reproachful voice.

“I am Supreme Commander of the samurai,” said Sametono. “I do as seems best to me, not as ceremony dictates. Cousin Munetoki, this good Zinja monk saved me from being murdered years ago. I told him I would never forget it, and I won’t. Come up, Shiké Jebu, sit on the dais near me.” There was wonder and a little anger among the other guests at a Zinja monk’s receiving this unusual honour. There was even more murmuring when Sametono added, “You, too, Uncle Moko.” Only a few people knew that Moko was a close friend of Taniko and that Sametono had known him very well for years. Jebu and Moko seated themselves a little uncomfortably on the dais below Sametono. The boy now conducted a disjointed conversation with them while greeting other guests. This Zen spontaneity that Eisen encourages in his students could go too far, Taniko thought, but she recalled how Kublai Khan did whatever he wanted, without fear of censure. If a leader couldn’t make his own rules, how could he truly lead?

“Not only do I owe you my life, shiké,” said Sametono, “I owe both these swords to you.”

A cloud passed over Jebu’s face. “I should ask your forgiveness, Your Highness, considering how I came by the swords.”

“My honoured mother told me about the death of Takashi no Atsue, Master Jebu. I know very well that war makes enemies of people who should be friends.”

“Your mother is most kind,” said Jebu, glancing over to the screen where Taniko sat, sending her heart whirling upwards like an autumn leaf caught in the wind.

Sametono said, “It’s true that the blood of three great Takashi gentlemen flows in my veins, but in my own humble person I represent the union of the contending clans, wouldn’t you agree?”

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