Shike – Day 34 of 306

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.

There was a low stone wall on this side, behind which the bamboo palisade had been built. Clinging with his fingertips to the wall, Jebu drew a strong, light silk cable and a grapple out of a bag at his belt. The grapple was weighted in the centre, and its four hooks folded together for compactness in carrying. Jebu snapped the grapple open, drew back his arm, and threw it to the top of the palisade.

Pulling himself hand over hand, he was up the palisade in two breaths. On the other side there was a newly built gallery for archers; Go-Shirakawa had evidently feared an attack.

Dripping cold water and smelling of rotten weeds, Jebu tiptoed along the gallery towards the gate where a guard armed with a naginata stood, relaxed. Jebu drew an eight-pointed shuriken out of his robe and scaled it at the guard. The whirling blades bit into the man’s throat, spraying blood as he fell.

The man was making gurgling sounds, trying to give an alarm as he died. Jebu dropped down from the gallery, picked up the fallen guard’s naginata and stabbed him in the chest, muttering the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy under his breath. He straightened and pushed up the bolt that fastened the wooden gate.

He heard heavy feet rushing at him. Whirling, he swung the naginata with all his strength and sliced the attacker’s right leg off below the knee. Even as the man’s screams woke the defenders of the Sanjo palace, Jebu finished him with a naginata thrust into his mouth.

Repeating the Prayer to a Fallen Enemy, Jebu pushed the gate open. The Muratomo samurai who had come with him were through the gate and fanning out in the courtyard. A line of Go-Shirakawa’s servants formed to block the way to the Retired Emperor. Jebu felt sorry for them. They were not true samurai, only armed servants. Beyond the defenders, in the main hall of the Sanjo palace, Jebu could hear the screams of women and the cries of courtiers.

Some of the retainers fell with falcon-feathered Muratomo arrows in their chests and bellies. Others were cut down by slashing samurai swords. Jebu ran up the steps of the pavilion. He stabbed one of the Retired Emperor’s guards with his short Zinja sword. Another guard lunged at him, holding a long, thin courtier’s sword in both hands. Jebu darted aside and stabbed his attacker through the forearm. The man came at him again, one-handed, chopping. This time Jebu cut off his sword arm, and the guard screamed and fell.

Then Jebu was in the presence of Go-Shirakawa. The Retired Emperor sat cross-legged on a high pile of cushions on a dais, his pendulous lower lip jutting out as he frowned severely at Jebu.

“Truly we have entered an age when the teachings of Buddha are forgotten, if an aged monk in his retreat can be attacked by bandits.”

I can posture as well as you, Jebu thought. Glancing around quickly to make sure no one was about to attack him, Jebu fell to his knees and knocked his forehead on the cedar floor. “Oh, Holiness, this miserable monk has come at the command of the captain of the palace guards. Captain Domei believes that you are in grave danger here and respectfully urges that you take the carriage he has provided to the Imperial Palace, where he can better protect yourself and His Imperial Majesty.”

Go-Shirakawa settled himself rock-like on his dais. “The Zinja are murderers masquerading as monks. Be warned: to lay hands on me is to insult the very flesh of She Who Shines in the Heavens. I will not go.”

Jebu heard a cry behind him. He whirled. A courtier brandishing a dagger was leaping at him. Jebu grabbed the man’s wrist, tripped him and threw him to the floor. He knelt on the courtier’s back and used the man’s own knife to cut his throat. He stood back, wiped the knife on the dying man’s robe, and stuck the blade in his belt, stepping away from the widening pool of blood on the polished floor.

“Indeed, these are unsettled times, Holiness.”

Go-Shirakawa looked thoughtful. “The red of his blood contrasts with the pale green silk of his robe. Clearly if such things as this can happen at my very feet I am not safe here. You may escort me to the Imperial Palace.”

Jebu preceded Go-Shirakawa through the doorway of his palace. Outside, the pitiful courtier guards, who knew next to nothing about swordplay, lay scattered on the ground, so many butchered corpses.

The helmeted samurai prostrated themselves when Go-Shirakawa in his orange Buddhist priest’s robe appeared on the steps of the pavilion. Jebu snapped his fingers and the ox-drawn carriage was brought around to the steps. A samurai knelt and presented his back to the sacred feet as Go-Shirakawa climbed into the carriage. Another warrior slid the door shut, and the Retired Emperor was alone with his meditations.

“Mount up,” Jebu ordered. “Form a circle around the carriage.” They had not lost a single man. That pleased him.

The last person to leave the Sanjo palace was a samurai with a bloody sword in one hand and a torch in the other.

“No!” Jebu called, even as the man’s arm snapped forward and the torch flew through the air. Flames leaped up to engulf the palace.

Domei had given strict orders that the taking of Go-Shirakawa be smooth and quiet. But no discipline seemed strong enough to contain the samurai lust for destruction. The samurai, thought Jebu angrily, why were they such brutes? Supposedly in arms to serve and protect the empire, they were reducing it to ruins.

Go-Shirakawa had said something about this being an age when the teachings of Buddha were forgotten. Jebu had heard other Buddhist priests speak on the same theme, calling these times the Latter Days of the Law. The Buddha, they said, had predicted that the day would come when his laws would be broken and the world sink into chaos. It did seem, thought Jebu as the bonfire of the Sanjo palace roared into the sky, that everything old, everything beautiful, everything wise was gradually vanishing. Perhaps, indeed, these were the Latter Days of the Law.

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