Shike – Day 283 of 306

The Korean crewmen, realizing that their ship was past saving, were diving overboard. The Mongol soldiers were more stubborn—or desperate, since most of them couldn’t swim. They had no choice but to stand and fight. About twenty of them managed to form a line across the deck and were steadily shooting arrows into the attackers with well-drilled precision. Jebu jumped to the railing of the ship, took hold of a free line and wrapped it around his left arm. He swung feet first into the bowmen, sending the nearest of them sprawling, killing or scattering the others with his naginata. The samurai rushed the Mongols, their long swords flashing like torches in the firelight. Munetoki was in the lead, and a huge Mongol stood up with his spear pointed at the Regent’s chest. Jebu ran at the Mongol, whirling the naginata over his head and bringing it down on the big man’s neck. The severed head went sailing off the ship into the blackness. Munetoki took a moment to bow his thanks before decapitating another Mongol with a two-handed swing of his sword.

The Mongols just aren’t used to fighting on foot in close quarters, Jebu thought. Sakagura was shouting, “Sparrow! Sparrow!” the signal to abandon the enemy ship. Samurai were jumping into the water or scrambling down Flying Feather’s mast. Soon all the surviving raiders were on board the kobaya. Even the mast was saved, pulled back into place by four crewmen. The rowers pushed off, and Flying Feather was racing across the bay to Hakozaki.

Burning ships lit up the vast extent of the invading fleet. In the distance one ship blew up with a roar. There goes another kobaya crew, Jebu thought glumly, as those around him cheered. Hua pao mounted on the decks of the junks boomed, and flaming arrows sizzled through the air. The firelight revealed a distant ship that dwarfed the junks around it. It was bedecked with banners and had so many masts it was difficult to count them. On the foremast sail was painted a huge tiger’s head, fangs bared. From end to end the ship was Chinese vermilion, vivid as blood. It was Arghun Baghadur’s flagship, the Red Tiger. I wonder if he knows I survived his arrows in Oshu, Jebu thought. Red Tiger was surrounded by a ring of smaller war junks. There was no way to break through.

Jebu asked himself, do I hate him? Do I want vengeance for all he has done to me? Searching his heart, he was relieved to find that he felt no hatred. Arghun was like some dangerous beast of prey—like the tiger painted on his sail—whom one might feel a duty to destroy but could not hate the way it was possible to hate a twisted man lik Horigawa. One might even admire Arghun, see beauty in him, as one did in a tiger. Jebu’s Zinja insight told him that his enmity with Arghun was part of the necessary pattern of things, the pattern Taitaro had spoken of.

There was an ear-bursting roar and a flash of light from a junk near them. A round, dark object trailing sparks shot through the air. Jebu held his breath, waiting to see if it would fall on Flying Feather. It landed in the water far to their left and blew up, sending up a huge waterspout. A man near Jebu cried out and fell, holding his hand over a bleeding ear. The flying chunks of metal were the deadliest part of the Mongol fire balls, Jebu thought. But the hua pao were not at all accurate when mounted on ships. They might wreak havoc with masses of troops or break down fortifications, but they were nearly useless on the water.

“The one we raided is going down,” shouted Munetoki, clapping Jebu on the arm and pointing. Jebu watched as the junk, burning from end to end, rolled over on its side. The poor horses, he thought. Munetoki was wild with glee. Now that they had passed beyond shooting distance of the Mongol ships, everyone was chattering and laughing with the dizzy relief that comes to men when they have been in danger of death and have survived.

Sakagura pushed his way back to them. He held up a severed head by its braided black hair. In the other hand he had a rectangular bronze tablet attached to a gold chain.

“I got a general at least,” he laughed. “That is a general’s medallion, isn’t it?”

“A hundred-commander,” said Jebu, studying the tablet. To salvage some of Sakagura’s pride he added, “Surely the highest ranking officer aboard that ship.”

“I’ll get a general yet,” said Sakagura excitedly. “I’ll get Arghun Baghadur himself one of these days.” He grinned and stuffed the chain into his belt, then bowed to Munetoki. “Did your lordship enjoy the raid?”

“I’m only sorry it’s over,” said Munetoki. “I wish I could go out every night as you do. I’m obliged to you, captain.”

Sakagura bowed. “Forgive my presumption, your lordship, but I hope you won’t forget me. I came when called to arms, and I’ve fought hard, risked my life many times and killed many enemies. I expect to do a lot more fighting.”

“Your exploits and your reputation for bravery are well known, captain,” said Munetoki with less warmth.

Sakagura did not look in the least abashed. Moko’s eldest son had his father’s features, but not the crossed eyes and bad teeth, features that without those defects were quite handsome. He had been born the year Yukio and Jebu left for China, taking Moko with them, and was now twenty-three. So he had not met his father until he was about seven years old. Even so, he had Moko’s outspokenness and intelligence, it was clear. But he also had some qualities that were, perhaps, peculiar to first-generation samurai—reckless courage, ambition and an air of braggadocio.

“Please forgive me, your lordship,” Sakagura said. “We fellows who do go out every night, as you wish you could, are hoping the Bakufu will be generous after this is over, with rice land and offices and rank.”

He excused himself as the galley approached the Hakozaki dock. A crowd had gathered along the stone quays and wooden piers. Sakagura stood on the prow of Flying Feather holding up the Mongol head. The crowd cheered him. Munetoki watched him with a worried frown as the ship manoeuvred up to the torchlit dock.

“From whom can we take the rice land or the offices or the titles so that we can give them to him and his kind?” he said to Jebu. “Winning this war means driving off the Mongols, not gaining land. It could be dangerous if there are many who think like him.”

You’d better start thinking about it now, Jebu thought to himself. After the war it will be too late. Aloud he said, “There won’t be that many samurai left to reward after this war, your lordship.” He gestured out over the dark waters of the bay, now lit by the distant fires among the Mongol ships and by the waning moon. “Twenty kobaya left this town tonight, and I count only twelve returning. In our boat we lost seven men out of thirty.”

“The Mongols are taking terrible losses,” Munetoki agreed. “But so are we.” The kobaya bumped against the dock, and samurai crewmen jumped out to make fast. The Great Khan has a whole continent full of warriors to send against us, Jebu thought. Most of our fighting men are already gathered here. How long can we hold out?

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