Shike – Day 33 of 306

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.

The walls of the Imperial Palace enclosed a park and a collection of buildings which constituted a city in itself. Some of the halls were huge and heavy, set on stone bases with roofs of green glazed tile supported by white walls and red lacquered pillars. Other buildings, though also large, were built in a style more familiar to Jebu, of plain wood with wattled roofs. All the halls were connected by a maze of colonnades. In the north-east corner of the enclosure was the simple wooden residence of the Imperial family, surrounding a landscaped garden. The rest of the grounds were strewn with finely raked white gravel.

On the parade ground before the Hall of Military Virtues, a tile-roofed pavilion which was headquarters for the palace guard, a hundred men, deployed in extended order to form a square, were practising sword drill. Off to one side lines of men with tall samurai bows were waiting their turn to shoot at targets shaped like warriors. In the distance lines of horsemen galloped back and forth firing arrows at fleeing dogs released by attendants. Domei was keeping his tense fighting men busy with drill and more drill.

Domei stood in the centre of a group of samurai, all wearing armour with white lacings. Jebu bowed and presented himself. Domei’s men eyed his grey cowl and black-laced armour with curiosity.

“Ah, the Zinja I sent for,” Domei said. “Shiké, are you prepared to fight and die to rid the empire of criminals and traitors?”

Jebu was prepared to fight and die, and he didn’t particularly care for what reason. His Zinja training encouraged him to view the purpose of life as action, and life and death as equally acceptable. His meeting with Taniko and his loss of her made the Zinja philosophy even more congenial.

“I do as my Order bids,” he said.

“I have His Imperial Majesty in my safe-keeping, I have control of the Imperial Palace, and I have most members of the Great Council of State. There are two things that must be done now. The first is to kill Prince Sasaki no Horigawa, the man who brought about my father’s death.”

Jebu was startled to hear the name of Taniko’s husband. He should have realized, he thought, that Horigawa would be one of the first targets of any Muratomo coup. He must not involve himself in Horigawa’s death. Taniko must have nothing to reproach him for.

He was relieved when Domei continued, “My son Hideyori here will lead men to hunt down Horigawa.” Domei rested his hand on Hideyori’s shoulder. Hideyori had the same high forehead as his father, but he was very young. “This one is only fifteen,” Domei said with a smile. “We have just cut his hair and tied it in the samurai topknot. At first I wanted him to stay home like his younger brother, Yukio. But all my other sons are with me, and Hideyori insisted that he, too, must share in restoring the glory of the Muratomo. So I relented.” Hideyori looked at Jebu without smiling. He had the coldest eyes Jebu had ever seen.

“The other task is to take the Retired Emperor, Go-Shirakawa, into custody. At the moment he is at his Sanjo palace, guarded by his own men. That’s what I want you for.”

Jebu’s training had included a grounding in politics. He understood that for hundreds of years the office of Emperor had been a ceremonial one, without power. It was the Regents, always members of the Fujiwara family, who were the real rulers. But recently the Emperors had found a way to assert themselves—by retiring. A Retired Emperor was free of time-consuming ritual duties. He was not under the control of the Regent. He lived in a palace of his own, away from the Imperial Palace grounds. And he retained the prestige of having been an Emperor. To make themselves even more revered, many of the Retired Emperors entered the Buddhist priesthood. The Retired Emperors were thus a new centre of power, and were even able to name their successors on the throne.

To hold the Emperor in captivity, while valuable, was not as useful to Domei as having the Retired Emperor in his power. That would give him virtual mastery of the realm.

“Once we have His Retired Majesty, Go-Shirakawa,” Domei went on, “we will require the Great Council of State to meet. They will proclaim Sogamori and Kiyosi rebels and outlaws. They will appoint me Minister of the Left in place of Sogamori. And they will appoint a new Regent chosen by me.”

“You want me to take Go-Shirakawa for you?” Jebu asked.

“Yes. As a Zinja you are two things a samurai is not. You are a monk and you are capable of stealth. I want you to lead a party of men to the Sanjo palace tonight. We could make a frontal attack during the day, but it would take too many men away from here, and I must hold the Imperial Palace at all costs. And seeing us attack the Retired Emperor’s palace might stir up the people against us. I want this done quietly and quickly, with as few men as possible. You will have the honour of scaling the wall first and opening the gate for my samurai. Then you will handle Go-Shirakawa. Since he is a priest, most samurai would be reluctant to touch him. Being an ordinary monk, you will, I hope, feel no hindrance. Are you up to all that?”

“I think I can do it, Lord Domei.” A wave of exhilaration swept through Jebu. What he did tonight might well determine the future of the empire. And it would allow him to use his powers to the fullest and to risk his life. For the time being Taniko seemed unimportant. This was what he had been put into the world for.

Long after sundown Jebu and a small body of mounted Muratomo samurai were on their way to Go-Shirakawa’s residence, the Sanjo palace. Behind them was an ox-drawn carriage.

When they were close to the palace, Jebu signalled a halt and crept towards the building on foot, taking one samurai with him. The palace was a two-storey building surrounded by a bamboo palisade twice the height of a man, and it, in turn, was protected by a wide moat.

Jebu handed his bow and quiver to the samurai accompanying him. Thinking of a shadow, he crept along the street to the edge of the moat and slipped soundlessly into the water. Swimming in armour was one of the many skills stressed in the training of a Zinja. The water was ice-cold, almost paralysing him. Without hesitation he plunged his head under the surface and, relying on his sense of direction, swimming as a frog swims through the blackness, he touched the opposite bank of the moat.

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