Shike – Day 49 of 306

Oh, merciful Buddha, no, thought Taniko. He takes from me the only thing that makes life bearable. To leave the capital, to go into exile, no. If I can’t be here at the centre of things he might as well kill me. I’ll die there at Daidoji, of grief and boredom.

She knew it was useless to plead with him. Any sign that she was suffering would please him and confirm him in his decision. Two women had virtually thrown their lives away to save Akimi’s son, Yukio. She could only hope he would grow up to be worth it.

Chapter Fifteen

The Muratomo were finished, thought Jebu. Almost all the leaders of the clan were dead. Hideyori was as much Lord Bokuden’s prisoner as his ward. Jebu himself could do no more for Domei’s family. He worked his way southward towards the capital, still serving the Muratomo as the Order commanded. But the wings of the White Dragon had been clipped. Any lives lost now were being lost for nothing.

He was trudging over terraces of harvested rice. Behind him was another lost battle, if it deserved to be called a battle. The Takashi had ambushed a dozen hungry Muratomo samurai with whom Jebu had been riding. Jebu had warned them it might happen, but the Muratomo warriors had insisted that no true samurai would attack another samurai without proper warning and challenge. Whoever was leading the Takashi apparently didn’t care about such niceties.

Outnumbered many times over, the Muratomo samurai had thrown away their lives. What good had their sacrifice done the dead Domei?

Jebu reminded himself to think as a Zinja. To a Zinja there was no good or evil, failure or success, life or death. The Zinja simply threw his energy into the task at hand and did not concern himself about the outcome. From that point of view, his Muratomo comrades, alive a few hours ago, now dead, had lost nothing. At the very least, they no longer suffered the pangs of hunger.

A rider emerged from the woods behind Jebu, galloping directly across the rice stubble. There was no point in trying to outrun him, and no place to hide. Jebu quickly slipped off his bow and arrows and laid them at his feet. He nocked one arrow and laid it across the bow. He drew his sword and waited.

The samurai approached to within ten feet of Jebu and stopped. He looked sleek, strong and prosperous, like a well-cared-for war-horse. Quite different from the ragged, half-starved Muratomo samurai Jebu had been riding with. The laces holding together the many small plates of his armour were dyed a deep magenta.

“I saw you riding with that pack of Muratomo dogs we jumped, and I saw you sneak away when the battle went against you. I will not tell you my name and lineage because you do not deserve the courtesy. You are merely to be exterminated, like vermin.” He unslung his huge bow and positioned an arrow.

Jebu stood silently. The instant he saw the samurai’s fingers twitch to release the bowstring he threw himself to the ground. The ordinary warrior always gives a warning—a movement of the hand or fingers, a tensing of the arm muscles—when he is about to move. He consciously commands his movements, unlike the Zinja, who acts as the Self directs.

As the thirteen-hand-span samurai arrow whistled overhead, Jebu had his own ready. He stood up and fired. The point of his willow-leaf arrow struck the samurai in the left eye and buried itself deep in his head. Jebu felt no pleasure as he watched the samurai slide out of his saddle. It was a bit too much like killing a duck sitting in the water.

Jebu seized the horse’s reins. Holding the horse with one hand and speaking gently to it, he set his foot on the dead man’s forehead and pulled the arrow from the crushed eye. He wiped the arrow and returned it to its quiver. He took the man’s sword and scabbard and strapped them to the saddle. Then he asked forgiveness of the samurai he had killed and looked around, trying to decide which way to ride.

From horseback he could see further. Behind him was the forest where they had been ambushed. All around him were rice fields. Before him were the hills and mountains, and beyond the mountains was Heian Kyo. It was the first time he had been this close to the capital since last winter when he had ridden out of it with the defeated Muratomo army.

Now it hardly mattered where he was. The Takashi controlled everywhere. Any place he went for food and a night’s shelter would be the home of Takashi adherents or people who now claimed to be. He would have to say he was a Takashi man as well. A good thing about being a Zinja was that you could present yourself as serving one side or the other as you chose, or else you could pretend to be a simple monk minding his own business. Unless, of course, someone recognized you, as the now-dead Takashi samurai had.

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