Shike – Day 32 of 306

“I know,” said Taniko. “And of course, I have a duty of absolute loyalty to my husband. But where duty does not compel me, I believe I can pick my friends as I choose. I should be deeply honoured to be counted among your friends, as far as that is possible.”

Akimi looked at her gravely. “Karma brings many surprising turns to our lives. We will think of you as a friend. Whatever happens.”

Later, reading the book Akimi had given her, Taniko let her eyes wander from the page. She was happy that her gesture of friendship had been accepted, but there was an ominous note in Akimi’s voice when she said, “Whatever happens.” Domei was obviously a proud man, and he had lived a long time with heavy grievances. Was the apparent serenity of the Court, Taniko wondered, actually the heavy silence that comes before an earthquake?

Chapter Ten

For Jebu, the world had come to seem like a desert after he parted from Taniko. He returned to the ruins of the New Moon Temple on Mount Higashi, overlooking Heian Kyo, where he waited with his brother monks for a new command from the Order. A month later a monk arrived with a message from the Zinja Council of Abbots. The site of the New Moon Temple was to be abandoned, and the survivors of the earthquake were to move to the Autumn Wind Temple at Nara, two days’ journey from Heian Kyo.

Three months after Jebu took up residence at the Autumn Wind Temple, a new abbot arrived. He sent for Jebu.

“Your father, Abbot Taitaro of the Waterfowl Temple, sends you greetings and congratulates you on the performance of your first task. You sent him a samurai sword which you took in battle. He wanted to know why you did that.”

“I sent it to him as a gift, to honour him,” said Jebu. “And I had some notion that treating a samurai sword as a trophy might chasten the arrogance of the warriors.”

The abbot looked thoughtful. “One captured sword would not have that effect, but a large collection might. You’re a big, strong lad. You might live long enough to collect a hundred samurai swords.”

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll have plenty of opportunities. You’re now commanded to enter the service of the Muratomo. Your father urged the Order to be guided by your initiation vision. You will work for various members of the White Dragon clan, but your orders will ultimately be coming from the head of the family, Domei.”

Jebu carried messages from Domei to the eastern provinces and to the northernmost reaches of Honshu. He travelled to the southern end of Kyushu, where the people retained some of the barbaric customs of the Kumaso, those cannibal tribesmen long ago conquered by the founders of the Imperial family.

Often there was fighting to be done. Whenever he defeated a samurai he would send the long sword to the Waterfowl Temple. The collection of swords grew to ten, then twenty. Jebu recited the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy so many times that it required intense concentration for him to maintain awareness of its meaning.

When he was not travelling, he remained at the Autumn Wind Temple, seeking insight through the practice of swordsmanship, archery and various kinds of hand-to-hand combat. He helped to teach the few aspiring monks who lived at the temple and even participated in two initiations.

He never met Domei. The Muratomo chieftain transmitted his messages and orders through others. Jebu preferred it that way. He wanted to avoid Heian Kyo; he had no wish to see Taniko or hear anything about her. But not an hour passed that he did not think of her.

News from the capital reached the Autumn Wind Temple often, though. Power and honours flocked to Sogamori as birds gather on a temple roof, while Domei was repeatedly slighted and passed over. Bitterness between the two clans continued to grow.

In the Twelfth Month of the Year of the Horse, two years after Jebu had escorted Taniko to Heian Kyo, the abbot of the Autumn Wind Temple handed Jebu a message signed with Domei’s cipher. Jebu was to come to the Imperial Palace immediately, prepared for combat.

The abbot’s eyes were alight with excitement. “This morning Domei seized control of the Nine-Fold Enclosure and placed Emperor Nijo under guard in the Serene and Cool Hall. Domei has been planning this for some time. Five days ago the Takashi clan chieftain, Sogamori, and his son, Kiyosi, left on a pilgrimage to the family shrine dedicated to the kami known as Beautiful Island Princess on Itsukushima island. With the Takashi leaders out of the capital, Domei chose his moment to strike. He remembers the many missions you’ve performed for him and wants your services now.”

On the afternoon of the following day, Jebu rode to one of the three gates in the eastern wall of the Imperial Palace grounds and identified himself to the guards. Captain Domei, they said, was at the Hall of Military Virtues.

Over his grey robe Jebu wore the standard black-laced battle armour of a warrior monk. It might be true, as the Order taught, that a man’s armour was his mind and that a naked man could utterly demolish a man clad in steel, but the Order also taught that for stopping arrows there was nothing like metal and leather. The armour of the warrior monks was lighter and closer fitting than the box-shaped armour of the samurai. Instead of a helmet Jebu wore a grey cowl tied around his head and covering the lower part of his face and the back of his neck. In addition to his sword and his bow, he carried a naginata with a long blade.

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