Shike – Day 279 of 306

There was confusion as horses were brought for the Shogun’s party, riders jostled one another for position, and runners were sent ahead to warn the troops stationed along the wall of the exalted visitors’ approach. With Taniko in the lead, followed by Sametono and Munetoki, they set out. The sun was high in the eastern sky, and Taniko was a radiant vision.

Chapter Sixteen

This ride of Taniko’s, Jebu thought, will do more to put heart into the troops and the people than a visit from the Emperor himself. Around the circle of Hakata Bay the samurai who had come here from the sixty-six provinces were falling out in ranks in front of the high stone defence wall. As the Shogun’s party approached the first formations there were hearty cheers. But when the warriors saw Taniko they fell silent, knelt and prostrated themselves.

At Hakozaki, the northernmost town on the harbour, the crews of the kobaya lined up on the piers beside their ships and bowed to the Ama-Shogun. There were hundreds of the little ships at Hakozaki. From this town, nearest the mouth of the harbour, the defenders could strike the Mongol fleet before it even entered Hakata Bay. The old wall that circled the town, built hundreds of years ago against pirates, had been restored and made part of the new defences. Townspeople and samurai lined up on top of the wall and in front of it to watch Taniko pass.

Just outside Hakozaki a shaven-headed man in the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk rushed out of the crowd waving his arms and shouting, “Homage to Amida Buddha! Homage to Amida Buddha!” Jebu tensed, readying himself to draw his short Zinja sword. Arghun might very well use assassins against them, and assassins could disguise themselves as monks. Indeed, he thought grimly, assassins could be monks. But then he realized he had seen this man before. It was the notorious priest Noshin.

In these troubled times, which many called the Latter Days of the Law, with the country ravaged by civil war and now threatened by invasion, many people, especially lower-ranking samurai and common people, sought comfort in new religions. Noshin was one who taught that merely by repeating a certain scriptural verse a person could achieve enlightenment and salvation. He went up and down the country, exhorting large, excited crowds to adopt his simplified version of Buddhism. All the sufferings of the Sunrise Land, he declared, were punishments for its sins, particularly the sins of the nobility, the priesthood and the samurai. He insisted that his was the only true teaching and that all other sects were false and corrupt and should be driven out of the country, by force if necessary. Inevitably, when the land turned its attention to Hakata Bay, Noshin had moved there too, and was now preaching to the troops, leading them in litanies and urging them to defeat the enemy by the purity of their lives and the constant recitation of the prayers he recommended. Some of the samurai found him a noisy bore, but many others became his fervent followers.

Noshin planted himself in front of Taniko and began to harangue her. “Pray, lady, pray constantly to the Buddha. Ask him to forgive your sins. Renounce the falsehoods of the old Buddhist sects and the new Zen mountebanks. Abjure the superstition of Shinto. There is only one true religion. Pray for enlightenment, lady, and you will be saved, and the country will be saved.”

“Thank you, good priest Noshin, for your prayers and for your counsel,” Taniko said in a firm, commanding tone, as if Noshin had said precisely what she wanted to hear. “Please ask the Buddha to grant us victory.” With that she gave her white horse a sharp kick, and Jebu, taking the cue, started walking inexorably forward, holding the horse’s head.

I’ll step on you if you don’t get out of the way, he told Noshin silently. Evidently Noshin realized that any more intrusion into Taniko’s parade would make him look ridiculous, so he backed away, waving his arms and praying. A group of his followers in the crowd took up his chant, their voices growing fainter as Taniko’s party moved on.

“You see, my lady?” said Munetoki in a low, grumbling voice.

“That’s the sort of thing that happens when you appear in public. I’d have given anything to be able to draw my sword and cut down that obnoxious wretch.”

“Please, Cousin,” said Taniko softly with a smile. “You’re speaking of a holy man.”

“Holy men don’t attack other people’s beliefs,” said Munetoki, still angry. “Nor do they publicly lecture the Shogun’s mother. The authorities sent that man into exile once already.”

“And brought him back from exile because there was such a public outcry,” said Taniko. “We cannot afford to make enemies of his followers.”

It was going to take them all day to make the complete circuit of Hakata Bay, and it became apparent that Taniko had no intention of stopping until they reached the south end of the wall. Jebu feared for her.

“My lady,” he said, hoping Sametono and Munetoki would hear him. “Perhaps we could stop and rest at Hakata and resume this ride tomorrow.”

Taniko looked at him with an ironic smile. “Do your feet hurt, Master Jebu? I’ll let you ride, and I’ll lead the horse for a while if you wish.”

“You can’t ride from sunrise to sunset, my lady,” said Munetoki. “It will kill you.”

Taniko fixed him with a steely look. “The enemy fleet will probably be here tomorrow. I have only this day. I must complete the ride today, Munetoki-san.” Munetoki opened his mouth, and she cut him off. “I insist.”

Beyond brief stops, Taniko would permit the party no rest. No one dared complain. If the fragile little Lady Taniko could set herself this ordeal, how could any true samurai say it was too much for him? Every so often Jebu glanced back at her. Her head was high, her back straight. From the way his own legs and feet hurt, he who spent his days in training, he could imagine how her whole body must feel. The only sign of pain he could detect in her was in the tense grip of her hands on the saddle, as if in fear that she might faint and fall off.

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