Shike – Day 54 of 306

For most of the night they lay together, sometimes talking in whispers, sometimes joining their bodies. Jebu discovered energy and desire in himself surpassing all previous experience.

At last Taniko said, “I heard a bird call. It will be dawn soon. You must go now while the night still protects us.”

“I would stop the sun from rising if I could.”

“That is not possible, Jebu. Least of all in the Sunrise Land.” She laughed softly. “You will live, and I will live, and we will do what we must, and other nights like this will be ours again.”

Tiptoeing on bare feet, she led Jebu through the dark corridors of the women’s house to the open screen where he had entered. Again avoiding guards, Jebu crept back across the compound and pushed his way in through the space in the guard-room screen. He lay down on top of the bundle of quilts he had used to represent himself. Pleasantly exhausted, he dozed.

He heard footsteps. The entrance screen to the guards’ quarters slid back and the blaze of a torch filled the room. He sat up, then sprang to his feet as he saw Goshin and Horigawa enter.

“That one!” Goshin cried.

Horigawa’s small, square face turned in Jebu’s direction. The narrow eyes seemed to glow as he nodded.

“I know who this man is. He is a monk named Jebu, who fights for the Muratomo. He was hired by Domei himself. Who else could possess such outlandish looks?” He smiled and turned to Goshin. “Please kill him at once, Goshin-san.” He stepped back to watch, with a look of relish on his face.

Goshin was accompanied by three samurai in full armour, but he roared, “Every man to arms! Get your weapons down off the walls and kill the spy!” The sleepy guardsmen scrambled for their swords, spears, and naginatas. Jebu saw his own bow and sword, untouched and unnoticed, still hanging on the wall.

If he must die, there would never be a better day than today, after the night with Taniko. To die now would simply spare him any more of the suffering of being parted from her.

A half circle of men came at him, spears levelled. He waited until they were at the right distance, then threw his body into a handstand, delivering a stunning kick to the jaw of one of the spear carriers, then somersaulted past the group. This put him among Goshin’s three armoured men, who were caught by surprise. Jebu drove his stiffened fingers into one man’s throat and plucked the long samurai sword out of the suddenly strengthless hand.

Jebu whirled the sword in a huge, whistling arc, and the three men backed away. This left Goshin exposed. With a backhanded sweep of the sword, using all the strength in his right arm, Jebu beheaded the chief guard.

Now he was face-to-face with Horigawa. But beyond Horigawa he saw his weapons. The men in the room were recovering from the initial attack. By the time he killed Horigawa they would be upon him. If he went for his weapons he had a chance of getting out alive. He did not care that much for saving his own life, but something—the Self perhaps—told him he had a duty to go on living.

Horigawa cringed away from Jebu, not even drawing his sword to defend himself. Jebu darted past him to the weapons that hung unguarded on the wall. Into his belt he thrust the sheathed sword he had brought with him. He leaned the sword he had just taken from Horigawa’s guardsman against the wall. Slinging his quiver over his back, he drew his bow and fired a volley of arrows into the crowd of guardsmen.

Make every arrow count. Demoralized by the death of one leader and the cowardice of the other, the guardsmen milled around uncertainly, and four of them died as Jebu’s arrows struck home. One of them was the man who had offered him sake.

He took the Zinja sword down from the wall and buckled it around his waist. Slinging the bow over his shoulder, he drew the Zinja sword with his left hand and with his right hand picked up the samurai sword he had set down a moment before. Brandishing a blade in each hand, he advanced on the remaining guardsmen. Staring up at him, they started to back away, stumbling over the bodies on the floor.

“Protect me!” Horigawa screamed. “Protect me! He wants to kill me!” The guardsmen formed a ring around the prince.

Again Jebu saw that he could either attack Horigawa or escape. He praised the Zinja training that enabled him to keep anger and vindictiveness out of the fight. He bolted for the screen in the corner of the room where he had slept, smashed through the oiled paper and out into the pre-dawn cold.

As he ran he slid the samurai sword into his belt beside the prize he had taken earlier, and sheathed his Zinja sword. Running still, he drew the grapple out of his inner pocket, unfolded it and threw it at the top of the wall. He pulled himself hand over hand up the silk cable, dropped down the other side and ran for the stable. There it was, a low building, black against the purple sky.

A guard stood at the entrance to the stable. “Get away,” Jebu snarled. “I’ll kill you if I have to.” The man ran, shouting loudly for help. Looking after him, Jebu could see lanterns bobbing around the gate of the manor and he heard shouts of alarm and command.

He entered the stable, breathing in the strong, warm smell of horses. It was too dark to find the horse he had ridden here. He looked into the first stall and saw a big, dark shape. There was a row of bridles hanging on the stable wall. He took one down, went into the first stall and threw it on the horse, buckling it in place quickly and pulling the horse firmly out of the stable. The horse whickered fearfully and tossed its head.

“I know you’ve never met me before,” said Jebu, “but you can save my life if you will.” Hoping the horse would be strong, fast and obedient, Jebu scrambled on its bare back and dug his heels into its sides. The horse sprang forward and broke immediately into a gallop, as much from fright as from Jebu’s command. Jebu slapped its neck encouragingly and over the wind shouted, “Good! Good!” into its ear.

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