Shike – Day 277 of 306

The sense of relief was gone. Eisen had given it to him and taken it away again. Perplexed, feeling heavy and awkward, Sametono pressed his forehead against the mat, bidding Eisen goodbye. His armed escort snapped to attention and the monks bowed, but Sametono, lost in thought, did not notice. A monk brought his horse, and he vaulted into the saddle without being aware of what he was doing. Feeling deeply discouraged, he led the way down the mountain path back to the castle in Kamakura. Then it occurred to him that when he had gone to Eisen that day he had been afraid. Now he was just puzzled. That was an improvement. No, No, No. What did Joshu mean by that No?

Chapter Fifteen

Shogun Sametono, his family and his generals, had barely arrived at Hakata Bay when lookouts reported the sails of a great fleet off Kyushu. Munetoki called a meeting of officers at sunrise, six days after the full moon of the Fifth Month. Before the camp at Hakozaki, northernmost of the three towns around the bay, a pavilion had been built on the beach. Over three hundred samurai of the highest rank, all in full battle dress, sat facing it. These men would lead the defence forces. In the pavilion Munetoki, Sametono, and Miura Zumiyoshi met with the commanding generals. Jebu, who held no official rank, sat in the front row of warriors facing the pavilion.

Scouts had reported a portion of the enemy fleet sailing towards the coast of Honshu, but the leaders agreed this was only a diversion, and that the main body of Mongols would land here at Hakata Bay. Sametono, dressed in general’s armour with white lacings, gave a short speech, and the officers bowed low to their Shogun and then gave a cheer for him. Munetoki gave an even shorter talk in down-to-earth eastern province style, promising rewards for all, especially those who distinguished themselves in battle. Jebu kept glancing beyond the leaders at the distant grey line where sky met sea, knowing that some time today or tomorrow the first enemy sails would appear there.

A horse-drawn carriage surrounded by riders in full armour carrying both the Muratomo and the Shima banners rolled up the hard-packed sand of the beach and into the space in front of the pavilion. Guards stepped to the rear door of the carriage and placed a little stepladder under it.

Taniko emerged from the carriage. The first sight of her was dazzling. The sun had just risen above the hills behind the bay, and its early-morning light flashed on her head-dress of lacy gold set with jewels, pearls and coral. She wore gold necklaces and an embroidered lavender outer robe. She carried a large folding fan made of thin strips of carved ivory. Jebu, who had spent part of the night with her, was as surprised as anyone at this apparition. She had sent him away at the hour of the ox without explanation. She must have spent the remainder of the night dressing for this occasion. She had not given Jebu a hint of what she was planning and neither, judging from the dumbfounded expressions on the faces of Munetoki, Sametono and the others, had she told anyone else. Jebu wished Moko could be here to see Taniko as she was today, but he was out on the sea with a scout ship, watching for the Great Khan’s fleet.

With a bearing that was a marvel of stateliness for a woman so small, Taniko mounted the dais under the pavilion. The lords hastily made room for her, and she took a seat between Sametono and Munetoki.

Jebu heard the whispers scurry through the ranks of kneeling men around him: “The Ama-Shogun.” One by one the awed samurai bent forward and touched their hands and foreheads to the sand. Now Jebu understood why Taniko had come here. Until now this had been a gathering of military men, nervous on the day before a battle, discussing an unknown enemy. Her presence raised the occasion to the level of a rite, and the pavilion had become a shrine.

But not everyone was pleased. “My lady, it is not seemly for you to present yourself, without any shield or screen, in a gathering of men,” Munetoki growled. “Consider your reputation.” He tried to speak softly, but his drill-ground voice inevitably carried out to the first few rows of samurai.

“Much more than my reputation is at stake today, Lord Regent,” said Taniko in a clear voice that, though much lighter than Munetoki’s, was perfectly audible. “We are beginning a struggle for the very life of this nation. I feel I may have something of value to say to our warriors, and if I am not perfectly safe among my samurai, I would rather be dead. If I am not interrupting anything, may I speak?”

“It is most irregular,” Munetoki grumbled. “Unheard of.”

At fifteen, Sametono spoke in a deepening but still youthful voice. “It is unprecedented that the Sacred Islands should be invaded by foreign barbarians. At such a time all must contribute in whatever way they can. Of course my mother may speak.”

Taniko bowed, the diamonds on her head-dress flashing. “Thank you, my son.”

The beach was silent as a temple, the only sound the shoreward rush of the waves in the harbour, the whisper of a light breeze and the fluttering of banners. Taniko’s voice had, as always, a high, metallic ring, but there was in it a strength Jebu had never heard before. Her words easily reached even the samurai in the rear ranks. It occurred to Jebu that she had never done anything of this kind before. How and when could she possibly have prepared herself? What an amazing woman. His heart filled to bursting with love for her.

“Noble lords and warriors of the Sunrise Land, forgive my temerity in speaking to you, though I am a mere woman. As his lordship the Shogun has said so well, these are unusual times, and they call forth unusual actions from all of us. Though I am a woman, I am also, like you, samurai. So, think that I come before you today as samurai, and excuse my boldness.

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