Shike – Day 293 of 306

“We have come to ask what you want in return for the release of the boy.” Jebu wanted to have done with the masquerade and strike as soon as possible, but he needed something to distract Arghun’s men. If only the storm would get more violent.

Arghun laughed, a harsh, brassy sound. “Is he really your Shogun, then? I wasn’t sure, and he denied it, of course, but I know this sword.” He patted the silver-dragon hilt of Higekiri, which lay across his lap. “I kept him alive in the hope that he would be of value to us. Son of Jamuga, do you speak for these officials, or am I to negotiate with them directly?” He gestured contemptuously at the men in drenched silken finery, who backed away from him and spread out over the deck, moving in a planned pattern, as he glared at him. The officers around Arghun laughed at them.

“Your samurai deserve better leaders than these women-men,” said Arghun. “When I am deputy king of the Sunrise Land they will have a ruler they can respect.”

The blackness from the south was almost upon them. A huge wave, a storm swell, struck Red Tiger’s starboard side and sent it rolling to port. Arghun stood up and braced himself as his chair crashed over on its side. Both Former Zinja and Mongol guards slid across the rain-slick deck to the port rail. The hua pao, set in a bronze base plate which was bolted to the deck, creaked in its mountings, and the Chinese who served it chattered among themselves. Jebu looked up and saw that Sametono had swung out over the water. The Mongol archers kept their arrows trained on the boy’s body as best they could, but they had to scramble. These steppe-bred horsemen had no sea legs.

“Tell these ambassadors what concessions you ask for the return of Sametono,” Jebu said. “I will interpret for you.”

“I can speak the language of your country as well as you can speak mine,” said Arghun. “But you may speak for me. Tell them that there is only one agreement the Great Khan will permit me to accept from you. That is unconditional surrender.”

Jebu translated this into the language of the Sunrise Land. The emissaries made a great show of horror, giving them a pretext to back away a few steps more. They were now quite close to the ring of archers menacing Sametono.

“Tarkhan, these men are not empowered to surrender our whole nation,” Jebu said. “Nor would they, in return for just one life, even one so precious to us as Sametono’s. I advise you to demand some tactical advantage, something our defence forces could reasonably give up without feeling we were losing everything.”

Arghun looked out through the open side of the shed at the slanting rain and the darkness covering the harbour. Thick black clouds rolled before the wind like lines of Mongol cavalry. It was so dark now that crewmen on the bridge were lighting lanterns.

“Then let us all come ashore. Give us the rest of this day to disembark all our troops on that beach, so that our ships can weather this storm in the open sea.” Jebu saw the uneasiness in Arghun’s blue eyes. The man knows, he thought, that the wind and the rain and the waves can wash away everything he has been living and working for. Again Jebu translated, drawing out his speech and adding details and comments, taking his time.

What he was waiting for happened. A wall of water pushed by the storm smashed into Red Tiger, throwing everyone on the top deck off-balance and swinging Sametono’s body far out over the sea again.

“The tarkhan is no more capable of negotiating fairly than a shark is,” Jebu said quickly.

The word “shark” was the signal. Twenty of Jebu’s men unsnapped wooden caps from the tips of their parasols and put the long handles to their lips. Twenty men took deep breaths and expelled them powerfully. Two poisoned darts struck the neck of each Mongol bowman. The archers had their arrows nocked and aimed, but only a few had time to draw their bows and shoot before they died. All the arrows went wild. All forty Former Zinja fell upon Arghun’s officers and guards. Folded, the beautifully painted fans they carried became rigid sticks which they used to parry sabre thrusts, to stun their victims and to smash their temples or windpipes. In moments the Former Zinja were armed with bows and arrows, and of all the invaders at this end of the deck only Arghun was left alive. He roared for help.

“Cover him,” Jebu snapped, and the tarkhan fell silent as two Former Zinja pressed the points of captured sabres to his throat. Jebu leaned over the rail and called to the samurai on Shimmering Light. He and the other Former Zinja threw ropes and nets down, and Sakagura and the loincloth-clad samurai came swarming up. They joined the Former Zinja, seizing weapons from the fallen invaders and readying themselves to meet the remaining enemy warriors on this deck.

Jebu judged that there must be three or four hundred Mongol warriors and Korean crewmen aboard the ship. A line of invaders swinging sabres and battle-axes was charging down the deck from the stern cabin. More were climbing up through the hatchways. The Former Zinja used captured bows and arrows to bring down the first few warriors to come out of the hatches. Their bodies blocked the way out for their comrades. Now Jebu’s men stripped off their silk robes and trousers, revealing the plain grey tunics of warrior monks. They tore the ribs and paper tops away from their parasols, turning the handles into fighting staffs. Armed with these or with captured weapons, the Former Zinja and the samurai attacked Arghun’s warriors. Mongol sabres, of inferior steel, broke when struck precisely with the strong wooden sticks. Mongol skulls broke, as well. In confined shipboard quarters Zinja fighting arts easily overcame men used to making war from horseback on broad plains. Within moments Jebu and his party had control of the top deck of Red Tiger.

Jebu ran to the hua pao shed, where the Chinese crewmen lay sprawled around the base of the monstrous device. He took the torch used to ignite the hua pao from its iron brazier. He set fire to a discarded silk robe and stuffed it into the nearest hatchway. Other Zinja followed suit. Some set fire to arrows and shot them belowdecks. When flames burst up through one of the hatchways, Moko ran to it with a cask of the black powder in his hands. He threw the little barrel down the hatch, and he and Jebu both jumped back. After a moment there was a muffled boom from below deck and a great puff of black smoke shot up out of the hatchway. There were screams from below and more fire and smoke. Moko and Jebu and the other men threw powder casks down the hatches as fast as they could. Explosions shook Red Tiger from prow to stern, like a dog shaking a rat. Jebu turned to look at Arghun. The Mongol warlord was staring at the death and destruction all around him, and for the first time there was an emotion in his eyes. Fury.

Red Tiger was rocking wildly from side to side, and the rain was almost horizontal. It was pitch dark. The only light came from the fires below deck. They had used the black powder just in time, Jebu thought. This rain would probably put all fires out. Still a lurid glow came from the innards of the ship. Would near-by ships see that there was trouble aboard the Red Tiger and try to send help? He slipped his sandals off. Bare feet gave better traction on the wet deck. He ran to the rail.

Red Tiger had been deserted. He could see no ships near at hand. A junk with all sails up vanished into the blackness of the storm even as he watched. It seemed to be sailing towards the harbour mouth, but he could no longer be sure of his directions.

The colonnade of masts that ran the length of Red Tiger’s deck was creaking fearfully as the huge, crippled ship rolled first to one side, then the other. It sounded as if the masts might begin breaking loose and crashing down on them at any moment. The explosions below-decks had probably destroyed the bases of many of the masts, blowing them loose from their beds. Hearing screams and cries from below, Jebu ran to the rail and saw arms and heads bobbing in the water. The Mongols and Koreans left alive belowdecks were abandoning the ship. Jebu’s heart sank as he saw some of them swarm aboard Shimmering Light, manning the oars and cutting the gozabune loose from Red Tiger. If the Mongol flagship went down, Jebu’s party now had no way of escape. Jebu watched the undermanned galley sluggishly pull away. It spun out of control on a foaming white crest, then slipped sideways into a trough. A wave as tall as a pagoda fell upon it, caught it broadside, swamped it and turned it over. The screams of drowning men were tiny doll cries in the roar of wind and waves. The flat brown bottom of Shimmering Light floated for a time awash in the swelling seas. In the brief illuminations of lightning, Jebu could see the other ships tipping over under the force of the storm and the huge waves that came from all directions at once.

Red Tiger could hardly last much longer. The mast to which Sametono was tied might break off at any time. With each roll of the ship the boy’s body swung out over the waves. If the rope holding him broke, he would be thrown into the sea. With his arms bound he would have no chance at all. The rope was tied to the mast. Jebu realized he had nothing to cut it with. He had not picked up a weapon for himself and there was none near him. He had only a fan, one the Former Zinja had brought aboard Shimmering Light. Still he hurried to the base of the foremast. Doubtless he could untie the rope. Then he froze in horror. Arghun was standing there with a Mongol battle-axe in his hand, poised to cut the rope. One blow and Sametono would fly off into the sea. Jebu started walking towards Arghun.

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