Shike – Day 50 of 306

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.

But he had not eaten in over seven days. His Zinja training had inured him to going without food and even water for long stretches of time, but he could feel himself growing weaker. At this rate, soon he would no longer be able to draw his bow. He would have to stop somewhere. If we did not have to eat, he thought, all of us would be safe and free. It is when the bird lands on the ground to peck at seeds that the cat pounces.

Riding south towards the hills he caught sight of a manor house overlooking the rice paddies. Whoever owns that house is undoubtedly lord of this land, he thought. An important landowner would have to take one side or another. But this close to Heian Kyo and undamaged, it must be a Red Dragon house. The huts of peasants were clustered around the base of the hill on which the manor stood, and more huts climbed the hill behind it, where a high waterfall turned a mill wheel three times the height of a man.

He decided against asking the peasants for their hospitality. It would endanger them, and they had little enough to share. No, the thing to do was ride boldly in through the gate, present himself as a Takashi messenger on an important mission, and demand shelter, food and provisions. While he was at it, he might get some news of the Muratomo and find out where he could rejoin them.

He rode through the rice fields and up to the gate of the mansion. A group of guards stood by it.

“I am Yoshizo, a monk of the Order of Zinja,” said Jebu, using the name of a brother he knew was working for the Takashi. “I am on my way to Heian Kyo with a message for His Excellency, the Minister of the Left from—” Jebu said the first name that came to him “—his kinsman, Lord Shima no Bokuden of Kamakura. I require a night’s lodging and food.”

The guards didn’t move. “That’s a samurai sword and a samurai saddle,” one said, gesturing with the naginata. “I didn’t think Zinja monks used such fancy equipment.”

“Quiet,” said another guard. “He can kill you so quickly you’d be dead a minute ago. We’ll find out soon enough if he’s from Lord Bokuden. Come on in, monk.”

The first guard brightened up. “Yes! Come in, monk.” He grinned, stepped aside and waved the long-handled naginata towards the open gateway.

The manor house was old, Jebu saw, perhaps a hundred years old, built at a time when there was no need for fortifications. Both the stone wall around it, twice the height of a man, and the gate were new. A gang of workmen was putting up a wooden guard tower at one corner of the wall.

Jebu dismounted. One of the guards said, “I’ll take your horse down to the stables, monk.”

“Very good,” said Jebu. There would be no easy escape now. He was angry with himself for the vanity of his sword-collecting project and for not getting rid of the saddle, or disguising it. If the samurai he killed were a local personage, the sword, the saddle and the horse might be recognized. But it was now too late to do anything but keep walking onwards.

The other guard took him into the courtyard and slammed and barred the gate. “Chief of guards!” he called. An armoured man wearing a sword immediately stepped from a building to the right of the manor house, trailed by a group of men carrying naginatas. This household had its own little army, Jebu thought.

“Chief Goshin,” the guard said, “this monk claims to be from Lord Bokuden on a mission to the Minister of the Left in Heian Kyo. But he has a samurai’s horse and equipment. I thought to myself, we’ve got a way of testing whether he’s really from Lord Bokuden.”

“Of course,” said Goshin. He was a squat man with a frog-like face, huge eyes, flat nose, and wide mouth. “I’ll go see her.” He turned to his men. “Keep this monk at the ends of your naginatas. If he makes a move, skewer him at once. Don’t hesitate, or you’ll be dead. I’ve run up against these Zinja before.” He spat out “Zinja” as if it were a foul word. Goshin turned and strode into the manor house.

Jebu stood in the centre of a ring of levelled naginatas. He looked at the guards calmly and kept his hands away from his swords and his bow. What kind of test did they have in mind, he wondered.

The sound of hammering distracted him. He looked over at the men building the guard tower. One of the carpenters, a short man who gestured and shouted orders to the others, looked familiar, but he was too far away for Jebu to see his face.

“All right,” said Goshin. “There he is, my lady. Do you recognize him?”

Jebu turned from the guard tower to the veranda of the manor house. Through the blinds he could just make out a shadowy figure.

Then he heard a light voice, like the chiming of temple bells. “I have seen this monk visit my father. Who could forget that hideous red hair?”

Jebu felt himself go cold and then hot. He wanted to laugh and call out to Taniko, run up the steps, push his way into the manor house and put his arms around her. He forced himself to look coldly in the direction of her voice as if he had never seen her before. He reminded himself that he was a monk named Yoshizo.

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