Shike – Day 291 of 306

Kagyo and the other Former Zinja had already donned the costume sent by Taniko. Kagyo wore what the courtiers called a hunting costume, an outfit that had nothing to do with actual hunting, a tall, shiny black cap advertising high rank, an embroidered dove-grey jacket with trailing sleeves and billowing apricot trousers with legs as round and full as a pair of paper lanterns. He carried a folding fan and an oiled-paper parasol. The forty Former Zinja gathered on the deck of Shimmering Light were similarly dressed, like a delegation of ineffectual courtiers from Heian Kyo. They wore tall black caps, jackets of pink, green and lavender, and full trousers printed with diamonds, leaves, blossoms or birds. All carried parasols and fans.

Jebu turned to Sakagura. “You did well, this ship is perfect.”

“Shiké, what if Sametono isn’t alive?” said Sakagura, his eyes filled with suffering.

“Then we will avenge him by doing what he set out to do with you last night,” said Jebu quietly. “Assassinating Arghun Baghadur. Now let us push off, Sakagura-san. These seas will crack our hull against the dock if we stay here any longer.” It had begun to rain again.

Sakagura called orders. Crewmen slipped the hawsers and jumped aboard. They used long poles to push the brightly painted ship away from the pier. Another order, and a drum began to beat below the deck, where the rowers sat.

It was already midday, and Sametono was probably dead. The Mongols, like the samurai, took prisoners only to get information about what the other side was doing. Captives were questioned, sometimes tortured, finally killed. Jebu looked out at the harbour. The fighting was still fiercest where the shoreline curved in to Hakata. The town was a smouldering ruin, only its walls still standing, within which the Mongol beachhead held firm. Samurai battered the entrenched Mongols as the waves in the harbour smashed on the beach. There was fire everywhere. Junks burnt on the water. On the land, trees, houses and war machines stood in flames. The smoke billowed horizontally over land and water from south-west to north-east, pushed along by the howling wind. The low clouds overhead were shiny white, like a fish’s belly. They darkened to the south and were almost black along the southern horizon.

Jebu climbed down a hatchway ladder into the bottom of the ship, where the rowers sat. The sixty men wore only fundoshi. They were all samurai, unarmed, like everyone else aboard the gozabune. Jebu walked to the bow of the ship so he could face them.

“We’ve kept this a secret until now because we did not want to spread panic among the troops on shore,” he said, raising his voice so he could be heard over the beat of the drum that kept the men rowing in time. “The Mongols have captured his lordship, our Shogun, Muratomo no Sametono.” There were gasps and cries of shock. The rowers lost the beat, and the rowing master had to stop them and start them again. Quickly Jebu outlined his plan of action for them.

“If Mongols come aboard to inspect us before we get close to Red Tiger, try to look like slaves,” he concluded. “You were chosen for your skill in empty-handed combat, but I’m sure that when you get aboard Red Tiger you won’t remain empty-handed very long.”

The rowers laughed. “I thank you for inviting us to share this exploit with you, shiké,” said the first oarsman. The others called out their agreement.

Above deck, Jebu assembled the gozabune’s beautifully dressed passengers and told them the news of Sametono’s capture. They were as shocked as the rowers had been. Kagyo was the only one of the Former Zinja in whom Jebu had confided. Now he explained his plan to them, as he had to the samurai belowdecks.

“Remember to act as though you are terrified by everything,” Jebu told them. “And try not to let the wind blow your parasols apart. They’re a very important part of the effect.”

He lined the Former Zinja along the railing of the gozabune so that they could be clearly seen from the Mongol ships they were approaching. The Former Zinja stood with their backs and parasols turned towards the wind and rain. Jebu stationed himself in the bow, holding the rail. Rain and spray lashed his face. They were out past the breakwater now, and the waves in the harbour were like the mountains of Kaga. At one moment Jebu was plunging down into a valley of black water. The next moment he was shooting up into the cloudy sky. The sensation was sickening, and he had to keep his eyes shut part of the time. Moko came and stood beside him.

“I am the most unfortunate of men,” said Moko, “to have such a son.”

Moko’s pain made Jebu think of his years of regret over the killing of Kiyosi. “Your son did what he thought he should do. He couldn’t refuse the Shogun.”

Moko’s eyes widened. “But, shiké, the consequences could be—”

“The consequences are regrettable, but should not be cause for shame. Forget the past. Forget the future. What matters is now.”

After a silence Moko said, “Thank you, shiké. I feel better.”

In the valleys of water it seemed as if their ship were alone in an empty ocean, but when the prow of the ship topped a crest he could see the entire harbour and the Mongol fleet, most of its junks anchored in orderly lines. Some distance out from shore, Red Tiger rode at anchor, four times longer and far higher than any other junk in the fleet. The tossing of the waves made it impossible for Jebu to count how many masts the Mongol flagship carried, but there were surely more than twelve, perhaps as many as sixteen, those in the rear slanting towards the stern, those near the front slanting towards the bow. It looked more like a monstrous sea dragon than a tiger, and like a dragon it could spit fire. The huge hua pao, a bronze tube as long as three men, mounted on its foredeck roared repeatedly, sending missiles arcing a incredible distance to the beach, where they landed among the samurai attacking the Hakata beachhead, blowing craters in the sand. But above the boom of the hua pao Jebu heard another rumbling sound at once more terrible and more hopeful—thunder. Of course, many thunderstorms had swept over the bay since summer began, none of them doing much damage to the enemy. But this was the time of year for the big storms.

Shimmering Light had to pass a whole line of violently rocking junks at anchor, sails all reefed, to reach Red Tiger. An arrow whistled down and thunked into the planking, directly in front of Jebu. Good shooting, Jebu thought, if he meant to miss. He signalled to Sakagura to halt the rowers. From the nearest junk a voice challenged them in the language of the Sunrise Land, broken and heavily accented.

Jebu called out his answer in Mongolian. “This ship carries ambassadors of the Emperor of the Sunrise Land. We seek to parley with your great commander, Tarkhan Arghun Baghadur.”

Despite the wind and rain the forty Former Zinja managed to put on a great display of bobbing parasols, trailing silks and waving fans. Mongols lined the rails of the nearest junk, and Jebu could hear hoots of laughter. There was a long wait. The wind rose and the sky grew darker as the junk captains relayed Jebu’s message along the line of ships to Red Tiger. At last Jebu heard a cry ordering him to move ahead.

Red Tiger was due south. Sakagura ordered Shimmering Light’s steersmen and rowers to point the ship’s bow obliquely into the great waves rolling from south-west to north-east across the bay to keep the galley from being swamped. Jebu’s robe was already soaked and plastered to his skin by rain and spray. Pitching violently, Shimmering Light made painful progress across the bows of the long line of enemy junks, subjected to derisive laughter, insults and curses in Mongol, Chinese and Korean. There was no garbage throwing, probably because after two months there was little left on the junks to throw. Jebu counted on the Mongol rule of the sacredness of an ambassador to protect them from violence.

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