Shike – Day 71 of 306

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.

Once again Jebu lunged, whirling his naginata in a great arc that was intended, not to hurt, but to force the boy off-balance in evading it. This time, instead of stepping back, the young man made a prodigious leap into the air. Jebu’s naginata whistled harmlessly through the space where he had been.

Jebu considered himself to be faster than any swordsman he had ever met, except for some Zinja teachers he had fenced with. But this lad’s bursts of speed were absolutely blinding. From a position of perfect stillness the young man could move so quickly as to make the movement seem invisible. Jebu repeatedly attacked places where his opponent had been an instant before, only to realize that the young man was now six paces away.

Then the boy darted in past Jebu’s guard, the fan thrust into Jebu’s face, blinding him. Then, folding the fan, the youth stabbed its rigid ribs into the backs of Jebu’s hands. The pain was excruciating, and it was all Jebu could do to keep his grip on his naginata. The boy beat him about the head and face with the folded fan, the blows coming as fast and furiously as the hammering of a woodpecker’s beak on a tree trunk. Growling like an angry bear, Jebu managed to shove the boy away.

To be so discomfited by a lad fighting with a fan—this was humiliating. He must defeat him and take his sword.

No, Jebu thought then. Why must he defeat the young man? His opponent was excellent, he himself was excellent. They were brothers in the warrior’s arts. It didn’t matter which of them won.

Satisfied to fight now for the pleasure of using his skill, Jebu found himself doing much better. He was driving the young man back. He had him pinned against the railing of the bridge. He looked into his opponent’s large eyes and saw there a slight amusement, and deeper than that, he saw the Self looking at him.

The young man leaped to the railing and stood there, balanced on the balls of his bare feet. He was laughing. Jebu slashed at his ankles and the young man jumped into the air, letting the blade pass under him. He landed and danced backwards along the railing, parrying Jebu’s thrusts with his open fan. His agility was awe-inspiring. Jebu remembered Moko’s legend of the demon of the Rasho Mon, and suddenly wondered if he were fighting with a spirit.

Enough of this, he thought. He stopped fighting and lowered his naginata. He chuckled, then started to laugh aloud. He stood there on the bridge, roaring with laughter and delight.

“You are the best opponent I have ever fought! The best! Who are you?”

Smiling, not even out of breath, the young man dropped lightly to the planks of the bridge, folded his fan with elaborate care and tucked it back into his green sash.

“Who are you?” Jebu asked again.

“The samurai ask who their opponents are before a fight, but you ask afterwards. I have known all along that you are Jebu, the Zinja shiké.”

“How do you know me?”

“For years I have been hearing tales of a large brute of a monk, who goes up and down the countryside attacking samurai and collecting their swords. He is said to have red hair. Your head is shaved—I suppose you consider that a disguise. How many swords in your collection now, Jebu?”

“Ninety-nine. I vowed to collect a hundred. Yours would have been the last. But meeting you means far more to me than collecting another sword.”

“I am glad of that. You fought beside my father and my brothers. I want to be your friend.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Muratomo no Yukio.”

Jebu fell to his knees and pressed his forehead against the wooden planking. “I have been seeking you.”

“You have? Tonight I just escaped from the Rokuhara.”

“And you stopped to fight with me? What if the Takashi were pursuing you? You should have simply given me the sword and hurried on.”

Yukio laughed. “I could not miss the chance to learn the outcome of a contest with the great Jebu.”

“How did you learn to use a fan like that? I heard you were being educated for the Buddhist priesthood.”

“I was tutored in the martial arts by the tengu. Every night I used to slip out of the monastery to fence with them.”

“The tengu?”

“Little creatures, half man and half bird, who live in the mountains. Very skilled with all weapons, including the war fan and the tea kettle.”

“Do you expect me to believe that?”

Yukio laughed. “The monks of Mount Hiei did. Monks are generally very superstitious.”

“Not Zinja monks,” said Jebu. “Lord Yukio, I am part of a band of allies of your house who came here with the hope of rescuing you from Sogamori before he could harm you. We are camped outside the city near the Rasho Mon. I am delighted to see that you have rescued yourself, but we must get away from the city at once. Having fought you, I know that you are truly worthy to lead the house of Muratomo.”

“The leader of the house of Muratomo is my elder brother Hideyori,” said Yukio. “He is in exile at Kamakura, but he will come forward at the proper time.”

“As you say, lord.” Jebu bowed again. “No more sword collecting for me. This night I make a new vow. Because Lord Muratomo no Yukio has prevented me from fulfilling my vow of collecting one hundred swords and because he has shown me what the art of swordsmanship truly is, I vow to serve him faithfully and constantly as long as both he and I shall live. I swear it on the honour of the Order of Zinja. In token of this vow, I offer him my sword.” Drawing his Zinja sword, he held it out to Yukio. The handsome young man extended his hand over the sword without touching it—the customary samurai gesture to indicate acceptance of an offer of service.

“I accept your sword and I am deeply honoured. As a son of Muratomo no Domei, I expect many men to swear fealty to me as time passes. You are the first. I know that this is the sword that was presented to you by your Order at your initiation, and therefore it is a precious symbol of your holy calling. In the name of the house of Muratomo I accept your offer of service. I pledge you and your Order the same loyalty you offer me.” He handed the sword back to Jebu, who sheathed it with tears in his eyes.

“And now,” said Yukio, “let us go to join our friends at the Rasho Mon. Perhaps whoever shaved your head can perform the manhood ceremony for me. For some reason, even though I’m already fifteen, Lord Sogamori never would allow it.”

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