Shike – Day 280 of 306

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.

The sun travelled slowly across the sky above the bay, the hot sun of the Fifth Month, beating down on them. All along the way the troops cheered and bowed, their faces reflecting the awe and delight they felt at the sight of the famous Ama-Shogun. She’s right, it is worth it, thought Jebu, looking at those ecstatic faces. And he longed to take her in his arms and tell her.

The ride continued until after sunset. Taniko refused to stop until they reached the very end of the wall. The Shogun’s party had already requisitioned quarters at the small castle of a kenin whose estate was just outside Imazu at the southern end of the wall. The little lord, standing outside his gate, was pop-eyed with pride at being permitted to offer hospitality to the Shogunal party. A group of Taniko’s maids had been sent ahead by carriage to prepare her bedchamber. They rushed out of the central tower of the castle, twittering like birds, as Taniko rode through the gate. In the castle courtyard Jebu turned to Taniko, who closed her eyes and slid from the saddle into his arms. Ignoring the shrieking of the maids, he carried her up the steps of the tower. Jebu’s heart was bursting with love and pride as he looked down at the small figure nestled in his arms. He went where the maids led him, to an airy chamber in the upper levels of the tower, where he laid Taniko gently on a pile of quilts and cushions. He would not sleep at her side tonight. This place was too public. He would sleep like a guardian, at the entrance to her chamber.

After he set her down he whispered, “That was the most magnificent thing I have ever seen anyone do. You deserve to be worshipped as a goddess.”

She opened her eyes, the brown pupils turned towards him, and she smiled wryly. “Don’t blaspheme.”

“I meant only to honour you, my love.”

“I deserve no more honour than any of those men out there, Jebusan. Tomorrow they will fight with all their strength for the Sunrise Land, and many of them will die. I wanted to give them a vision, something that would signify everything they will be fighting and dying for.” She sighed. “How presumptuous of me.” Her voice trailed off and her eyes closed. Jebu sat back, looking down at her, his eyes wet with tears. He looked up to see Munetoki and Sametono, still in armour, staring down at Taniko.

“If she had been a man, what a Shogun we would have had,” said Munetoki. “I beg your pardon, your lordship.”

Sametono said, “Don’t beg my pardon. You’re quite right. It is unfortunate that she is a woman and therefore subject to women’s weaknesses.” He looked at Jebu with troubled eyes. He seemed to want to say more, but shook his head at last and went away with Munetoki, closing the shoji behind them.

Jebu undressed himself and carefully arranged his weapons and armour in a corner of the room. He unrolled a futon across the entrance to the room, set his Zinja sword beside it and lay down. A numbness rushed up from the soles of his feet through his muscles and bones, rendering him unconscious in moments. He had only time to be grateful that the long walk from Hakozaki to Imagu had so exhausted him that he would sleep in spite of the prospect of battle tomorrow.

“Shiké Jebu, wake up. Wake up.” He felt as if he had not slept at all. His entire body ached. What had happened to him? Not in years had anyone been able to approach him while he slept without waking him up. I’m getting old, he thought. Who is this? He opened his eyes an saw Sametono’s face. The boy’s eyes were bright with excitement. Morning sunlight was pouring in through the openings in the screened windows.

“They’re here, shiké. The Mongols. They came up during the night.”

The castle where they had spent the night had been selected because the tower was built on a high hill and was perhaps the best lookout point on this side of the bay. Munetoki was already at the northern window.

“There,” he said. Jebu and Sametono joined him at the window. Past Shiga Island, on the grey, indeterminate line of the horizon, there was a row of light-coloured dots. As they watched in silence, the line of dots extended itself slowly from north to south, across the entire horizon. At first there were spaces between the dots, but more and more appeared until the entire horizon line was covered by innumerable white squares, still tiny—the sails of Kublai Khan’s fleet. It was a deceptively peaceful sight, Jebu thought. What they were seeing out there on the sea was only a part of the invasion fleet, the nine hundred ships from Korea. These would eventually be joined by the four thousand ships of the South of the Yang-Tze Fleet, embarking from Linan.

Jebu could imagine the frenzy on those ships as they sighted the shore they were going to attack. The war drums pounding, the horses stamping and neighing in their stalls below-decks, the officers shouting orders. Only the low-ranking soldiers would be silent, staring at the distant shore, wondering what fate awaited them there. Here, too, a terrible dread possessed everyone. Down on the quays of the three towns, all along the wall that curved around the bay, men were readying themselves for the supreme effort of their lives.

“I wish I was out on one of our ships,” growled Munetoki.

“Your work is to stay in castles like this and give orders, Munetoki-san, not to go adventuring,” said Taniko. Jebu, Munetoki and Sametono turned to see her emerge from the stairwell. She looked amazingly fresh and rested and was wearing a pale blue summer costume printed with orange, red and yellow flowers. The three men stepped back to give her the central place at the window.

“There’s precious few orders for me to give now, Cousin,” said Munetoki. “I’ve given all the orders I intend to, and the defence is in the hands of able generals.”

Considering that it had taken them a whole day to ride from Hakozaki to Imazu, an order now from Munetoki to the fleet back at Hakozaki would be meaningless. Even concentrated in Hakata Bay, the defence line was far too long for easy communication. The defending generals had done as much advance planning as they could and had set up a system of signal banners and lanterns similar to the Mongols’, as described by Jebu, that would allow them to send simple orders and messages over a distance. Beyond that, local commanders at each section of the wall were responsible for their own decisions.

“There go our ships,” said Munetoki, excitedly pointing in the direction of Hakozaki. Jebu felt his heart lift as he saw the long, low silhouettes of little galleys racing out to meet the enemy at the mouth of the harbour. It looked as if a hundred kobaya were dashing out. Watching the little ships reminded Jebu that Moko had had a hand in designing them, and with a sudden chill he asked himself, where is Moko? His friend could have been caught out there somewhere. How could any ship escape a fleet so huge?

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