Shike – Day 79 of 306

I’ve asked Kiyosi how he feels about killing, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. He says the part of his mind that thinks about killing is sealed off when he is with me.

How lonely I will be when Kiyosi is gone campaigning in Kyushu.

-Third Month, twelfth day


Chapter Twenty-Six

One night in the Fourth Month of the Year of the Horse, Yukio, Jebu and Moko sat together in the monks’ quarters of the Teak Blossom Temple and said farewell to the members of the Order who had been their hosts for so many months. In the morning their little fleet would embark for China.

Down in the town of Hakata over a thousand men were drinking, coupling, sleeping, writing or pacing about, waiting for dawn to come. At Yukio’s summons they had come from all the Sacred Islands, the last, dogged supporters of the Muratomo cause in a realm in which everyone bowed to the Takashi. There were wild men, half Ainu, from northern Honshu; there were hard-bitten warriors from the eastern provinces; there were Shinto and Buddhist military monks from the temples around Heian Kyo; there were near cannibals from southern Kyushu. All of them saw Yukio’s summons as a last chance to recoup the fortunes they had lost when the Takashi plundered the realm.

For the farewell to Jebu and Yukio, Abbot Weicho had ordered a hearty meal—the closest the Zinja ever had to a feast. There were raw fish, steamed vegetables, an abundance of rice, and a small jar of heated sake for each of the brothers and their guests. Though the women of the temple did not usually eat with the monks, Nyosan was also present.

They were half-way through the meal when one of the monks escorted a samurai to Yukio. He was one of the guards Yukio had posted some miles from the town.

“Perhaps this should be for your ears alone, Lord Yukio,” the samurai said. He was out of breath and clearly tired.

“If it is bad news, tell it to all of us. The more we know, the better prepared we will be.”

His calm manner seemed to reassure the samurai, who nodded and said, “It seems the Takashi have learned of your plans, and they mean to prevent you from going. An army of ten thousand men crossed over from Honshu two days ago. They are now less than a day’s march from here. They’ll be here tomorrow for certain.”

“Then they’ll arrive too late,” said Jebu. “All they’ll see will be our ships sailing out of the harbour.”

“They may revenge themselves on the townspeople and the monks for helping us,” said Yukio.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Weicho. “We’ll protect our own. If need be, we’ll teach them that the Order is still to be respected, even if we have lost a few members.”

Yukio stood up. “There are still things to be done. I thought something like this might happen, and I have given some thought to preparing for it. I apologize for leaving this feast, Holiness, but there are arrangements I must make in town.” With a smile and a bow, the slight figure turned and strode to the door, where he buckled on his dagger and sword and went out.

Before sunrise the next morning the quays of Hakata were alive with the thump of bales and boxes, the clank of weapons and the shouts of young male voices as Yukio’s men assembled. In a few hours, according to word from scouts Yukio had sent out, the Takashi army would be upon them.

The warehouse workers sweated in the cool dawn air as they raced to load each ship with provisions for a voyage of ten days. The ten ships were ocean going galleys designed to carry both passengers and freight. Eight had sails stiffened with bamboo battens to catch any favourable wind that might help the oarsmen. At stem, stern and masthead the ships were bedecked with white Muratomo banners and pennants and streamers bearing the crests of other samurai families joining in the expedition.

As the sky above the hills around Hakata turned a paler blue, the samurai began to board the ships. Some of them bade goodbye to sombre little family groups that had accompanied them this far on their journey. Others, reeling drunk, were half carried to the docks by the women with whom they’d spent their last night on shore.

Long before dawn Nyosan and Jebu made the long downhill walk from the Teak Blossom Temple. Now, dressed in the ankle-length grey robe and black cloak of a woman elder of the Order, Nyosan gazed up at Jebu with shining eyes. Jebu had to bend almost double to put his arms around her and kiss her.

“That such a great, huge man should have come out of a tiny creature like myself,” she laughed.

“I will miss you, Mother.”

She shook a finger at him. “We have said goodbye too many times in too many ways to feel sadness now. Perhaps you will find your way to the land of your father. I hope, if you do, that it sets your heart at rest.”

Jebu looked out past Shiga Island, a sandspit at the tip of the northern arm of the bay, as if trying to see the fabled land that lay to the west. As he looked, a long, dark shape slid past the island. It was followed by another.

A silence fell over the quays. Then a murmur rose as ship after ship appeared in the entrance of the bay. The murmur grew as, oars sweeping rhythmically through the waves, the vessels sailed closer. The bright banners that bedecked the ships became visible. The banners were blood-red.

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