Shike – Day 60 of 306

Jebu darted around the log, slashing at Arghun. He expected the big man to duck back, but Arghun stood firm, parrying Jebu’s sword with a clang. They were almost chest-to-chest, and Jebu thought how unusual to be fighting someone as big as himself.

Arghun put his boot behind Jebu’s bare heel and tripped him. Jebu saved himself by turning his fall into a somersault, rolling away from Arghun’s thrust. Part of Jebu’s anger turned against himself. He was fighting poorly tonight. He was making mistakes, letting himself be taken in by obvious tricks. He told himself that he must get the better of the Mongol. Otherwise he would be failing himself, his father and the Order. Not only his life but the meaning of his life depended upon it.

Jumping to his feet, Jebu wondered when the rest of Arghun’s men would join in. Surely they could hear the ringing of sword on sword. Why didn’t Arghun call them? Probably because he wanted to kill Jebu himself. What was Taitaro doing? Jebu dared not take his eyes from Arghun for an instant.

The Mongol was moving in on him again. Unlike the Zinja, who frequently fell back or feigned retreat in order to draw their opponents off-balance, Arghun stayed constantly on the attack, his blade slamming again and again into Jebu’s. Jebu knew Arghun was trying to wear him down, overwhelm him with his strength. To break the momentum of Arghun’s attack, Jebu crouched and swung his short sword at the Mongol warrior’s legs.

Arghun leaped into the air, bringing his sabre down on Jebu’s blade with all his strength. Jebu lost his grip under the force of Arghun’s blow. The Zinja sword went spinning across the room. Still crouched, reaching for the lost blade, Jebu saw Arghun poised over him, his sword upraised for the death blow.

Rolling himself into a ball, Jebu hit Arghun’s legs. The Mongol started to topple, then caught himself with a dancer’s grace and whirled to strike at Jebu again. Jebu felt the impact of the sword’s point and edge biting into the flesh of his upper arm.

Then the candle went out.

Arghun’s blade, seeking him again, rang on the temple’s stone floor. Jebu realized instantly why Taitaro had been standing near the candle. He had given Jebu his chance, and had blown the candle out when he thought Arghun was going to kill him.

Now Arghun was roaring for his men. “Get in here and bring light! The monk I’m after is here!”

Jebu remembered where his Zinja sword had struck the far wall. He ran for it and snatched it up, then turned to look for Arghun.

“Jebu, you fool! Here!” Jebu felt Taitaro’s powerful fingers on his arm. Taitaro propelled him around to the back of the altar. Jebu heard stone grind against stone. Then Taitaro was pulling him again, and he squeezed through the opening and heard the stone door slide shut behind him.

Taitaro lit a candle and beckoned Jebu. Soon they were in the tunnels in the mountain, far below the temple. Taitaro turned on him angrily.

“I told you precisely what to do, but you wouldn’t listen. If you had, you’d be safely on your way to Hakata. Now you’re wounded, and you’ve still got to walk to Hakata. Let me see that arm. You’re bleeding heavily.” He helped Jebu clean and bind the wound.

“You’ll have a scar there. I hope you’re proud of it.”

“Sensei, you’re angry because I put myself in danger. But what else could I do? The man who killed my father, sitting there talking about killing me— He has been hunting me, sensei. And you were in danger, too. I had to attack him.”

“I don’t want you to be killed by that man.”

“I won’t be. I will kill him some day.”

“Jebu, he killed you tonight, on the plane of combat skill. You did not fight as a Zinja should fight. You were angry and vengeful, and therefore you were conscious and controlling at every moment. You did not let the Self fight. You hungered for revenge on Arghun as an ordinary man hungers for a beautiful woman. Think back on it.”

Jebu remembered. He had entered the temple composing himself for battle in the usual way, but somehow when he had launched himself at Arghun he had forgotten all that. More than anything in the world he had wanted to kill the Mongol giant. Throughout the fight he had incessantly been telling himself what to do. And he had always been wrong. Remembering, he was crestfallen. Truly he had fallen far short of the Zinja ideal. Perhaps it was his Mongol blood.

“You are right. I am humiliated.”

“Humiliation is our best teacher,” said Taitaro. “It is as kind to us as an old grandmother. I wanted you to know this man. An empty space in your life was filled up tonight. But now you should forget the tale of your father and Arghun as you would forget yesterday’s meal. It does not matter how you came to be born or where you came from or what men did injuries to your father. Until you can go against Arghun stripped bare in mind, he will always be able to get the better of you.”

Shame was a leaden weight in Jebu’s chest. “I am afraid, sensei, that I am a bad student. I hunger for beautiful women, like any ordinary man. I haven’t learned not to care about winning and losing. With Arghun, the man who killed my father, the wish to win became my master.”

“You are young, Jebu. The Zinja teachings aim at perfection, but you are not expected to be perfect. We hope you will learn to apply the teachings often enough at this stage of your life that you can live long enough to apply them still more.”

The weight in Jebu’s chest felt lighter. He smiled gratefully, looking into Taitaro’s weary, kindly eyes.

“I will try to care less.”

“Consult the shintai, the Jewel of Life and Death, every day. It will help you to see things more clearly.”

Together, in silence, they made their way downwards through the tunnel system. At last they were on the beach under the half-moon and the stars. Another light caught Jebu’s eye and he looked up in horror. The Waterfowl Temple was burning.

The temple had always reminded Jebu of a bird. Now the tongues of flame were like feathers and wings, and the temple was, not a waterfowl, but a great bird of fire poised for flight.

Rage followed shock. “I wish I could run back up the mountain and kill them all.”

“They are stupid men, and burning the temple is a futile act.” said Taitaro. “It doesn’t matter. We set no great store by temples. They’re just so much firewood in the end.”

They embraced, and Jebu turned his back on Taitaro and on the blazing Waterfowl Temple and started walking down the beach towards Hakata.

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