Shike – Day 70 of 306

She felt a chill at Sogamori’s ominous words, “for now.” Kiyosi smiled reassuringly at her. Tomorrow, she thought, he would come, and they would talk as they always had.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Early in the spring of Jebu’s twenty-third year, he and Moko were camped near the Rasho Mon gate of Heian Kyo with a group of samurai disguised as silk merchants. They had been commissioned by the surviving Muratomo leaders to attempt the rescue from the Rokuhara of Muratomo no Yukio, who, it was rumoured, was in grave danger of being murdered by the suspicious Sogamori.

“The boy is a constant reproach to Sogamori,” said Shenzo Saburo, the leader of Jebu’s band. “He reminds Sogamori that the Takashi murdered his father and grandfather and his older brothers. The tyrant will not rest easy till he has killed off all the generations of Muratomo.”

None of the samurai, it turned out, had ever been in Heian Kyo except for Jebu and Moko, and none of them had seen the Rokuhara. Holding a council, the samurai agreed that Jebu would go into the city first, a scout.

“Dress as a Buddhist warrior monk, a sohei, Jebu,” said Shenzo Saburo. “Go into the city and enquire about Lord Yukio. Observe the Rokuhara and report back to me how strongly guarded it is and how we might get Lord Yukio out. And shave your head, Jebu. It’s your red hair that makes you conspicuous. There are plenty of tall monks and peasants in the world.”

As Moko shaved his head, Jebu drew his tally scroll out of an inside pocket in his robe. “I have collected ninety-nine swords. Only one to go.”

“Shiké, this sword collecting of yours is madness.”

“Yes, it is foolish. But in an impulsive moment I made a vow. When I collect one more sword I can stop.”

After several hours of wandering the broad avenues and smaller side streets of Heian Kyo with his naginata over his shoulder, Jebu was frustrated. He found it difficult to approach people on the streets and in the wine shops, and the people he did speak to were terrified of talking to a stranger. He had only to mention the name “Muratomo” and the conversation would abruptly be broken off. The red-robed young men who patrolled the streets for Sogamori had terrorized the whole city. Several times Jebu encountered groups of them, and like the other citizens of Heian Kyo he prudently crossed over to the other side of the street.

No one would tell Jebu anything useful about Lord Yukio’s condition, his whereabouts in the Rokuhara, how well he was guarded, or the strength of the Takashi samurai. But the Takashi were so unpopular that his guarded questions aroused no hostility, only warnings that he was broaching matters better left alone. Jebu decided that he would go and look at the Takashi stronghold for himself and report back on its apparent defences. That would give him something to show for his journey into the city.

Then it appeared that his one-man expedition might produce another result. At the darkest hour of the night, Jebu, wandering westward towards the Kamo River to get to the Rokuhara, heard the music of a flute. Someone was playing an air of the eastern provinces. There was something almost magical in the pure, sweet sound carrying on the still night air. Jebu smiled appreciatively.

He stepped on to the bridge called Gojo, over the Kamo River. This was the very bridge on which he had first crossed into Heian Kyo with Taniko. In the moonless dark he could faintly make out the three towers of the Rokuhara on the far side of the bridge.

Then he saw the flute player strolling towards him from the other end of the bridge. It was a man dressed in a green and yellow hunting costume, with his long sword hanging from his belt. He was small and slender and looked very young. His long black hair hung unbound below his shoulders. He had no samurai topknot, but he wore a samurai sword. He must be very young, indeed. Strange that such a boy should be out so late.

To fight and perhaps kill this flute-playing lad would be a shameful way to collect his last sword. But an armed man in Heian Kyo must be on the Takashi side. Perhaps this was one of Sogamori’s young bullies, off duty and out of his red robe. If so, it was time he was taught some humility.

Swinging his naginata down from his shoulder, Jebu fell into, an at the-ready stance, barring the young man’s path across the bridge. “You play very well.”

“Thank you, sohei,” said the boy politely, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly as his glance fell on the long pole arm in Jebu’s hands. “Can I be of service to you?”

“I want your sword. Give it to me and I’ll let you pass.”

Calmly the young man sheathed his flute, drew a fan from his sash and snapped it open. It was white, with a red disk painted on it. What on earth did he intend to do with that? He was a good-looking boy, Jebu saw, though the eyes under his high forehead were larger than normal, which gave him a somewhat feminine prettiness. When he smiled, he displayed slightly protruding teeth.

“My sword is my most valuable possession, sohei. I find it rather an insult for you to suggest that I give it up without a fight.”

“Do not force me to attack you, young man. Do you intend to defend yourself with that fan?”

“If you are a well-trained sohei, you must be acquainted with the art of the war fan. I’ll use this until I see the need for a more puissant weapon. It is always better to use too little force than too much, don’t you think?”

Jebu laughed. “So young and such a sage?”

“I have given some thought to military matters. Are you going to stand there talking, sohei, or are you going to come at me?” The youth crouched slightly, the absurd fan held out before him.

Very well, Jebu thought. He would try to subdue the young man without hurting him. Waving his naginata from side to side, he took a few menacing steps forward. Suddenly, he swung the naginata at the boy’s feet, trying to knock him down with its long pole. At the last possible second the youth stepped quickly backwards, and the naginata’s sword blade sliced into the railing of the bridge. Jebu pulled the weapon free and stepped back, trying to draw his opponent into an attack. But what sort of attack could he make, armed with nothing but a fan? The flute player simply stood his ground, eyeing Jebu intently.

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