Shike – Day 8 of 306

“To be alive is to be doomed,” Jebu said.

Nyosan laughed. “Oh! Ordination in the Zinja has made my son a wise man. He is full of sayings that boom like the hollow log in the temple.”

Jebu joined in her laughter. “You’re right, Mother. My sayings are hollow. I know nothing.”

“How could you be expected to know anything, a boy of seventeen years? You will know something of life if you live as long as I have. I have been the daughter of a peasant, and I became, barely out of childhood, the bride of a splendid foreign giant, rich with jewels. And your stepfather, Abbot Taitaro, he, too, is a strange and wonderful man. He has loved me fully, and I have been very happy. Not that I’m so old. I may be twice your age, but I’m still young enough to have babies. Only, what the monks call karma has decreed that Taitaro-sensei beget no babies. So you will always be my only son. My magnificent, red-haired, grey-eyed giant of a son. Live long, Jebu.” She took his hands and held them. “Live long, long, long. Love. Marry. Be a father. Don’t let the Zinja destroy you when you are still little more than a child. You are not just a Zinja, to be used and thrown away like a grey robe. You are Jebu. A man.”

Chapter Three

Above the gatehouse of the Shima mansion the Red Dragon banner of the Takashi snapped and sparkled in the clear autumn air. Two retainers armed with long naginatas lounged on either side of the entrance. When Jebu showed them the letter from Taitaro to Lord Bokuden they called inside, and the great wooden gate, reinforced with spike-studded strips of steel, swung open.

Jebu strode across the courtyard, his wooden-soled sandals crunching on the white gravel. Solid ground still felt strange under his feet after so many days on a deck. He was delighted to be off the trading vessel that had carried him through the Inland Sea and up the east coast of Honshu to Kamakura. Trained though he was to remain calm and meditative, he found the journey extremely boring.

He kept the hood of his grey robe pulled over his head. He hated to see strangers staring at his red hair. His second robe was folded and tied at his cloth belt. His short Zinja sword swung at his side in its wooden scabbard, and his small bow and quiver were slung over his shoulder. He touched the Willow Tree patch sewn on the breast of the robe for reassurance as he approached the main house of the Shima compound.

A steward wearing a grey silk kimono met Jebu and conducted him into the main building of the compound, down a series of screened, shadowy passageways. Finally the servant slid back a shoji screen, announced Jebu and gestured for him to enter.

Lord Bokuden, chieftain of the Shima clan, was a small, bald man with a deeply lined face and a thin moustache. Wearing a gold-embroidered green kimono, he sat before a carved ebony table which Jebu recognized as a costly import from China. On a scroll, he added up accounts with brush and ink. One side of the small chamber was partly open to let sunlight in.

Jebu felt himself disliking Shima no Bokuden at once. He had heard that the Shima were grasping, cold and treacherous, and Bokuden looked as if he epitomized all those qualities. The Shima were a branch of the great Takashi family, but declining fortunes had reduced them to earn their way through fishing, trading and, some hinted, piracy. Having fallen far, the family was rising again. They used their profits as merchants to buy and develop tax-free rice land in the Kanto Plain north of Kamakura. As wealthy landowners they produced samurai sons, and hired bands of warriors. Now they were the first family of Kamakura and were marrying into the nobility of Heian Kyo.

Jebu bowed and said, “Initiate Jebu of the Order of Zinja, here at the invitation of Lord Bokuden.” He handed over the letter from Taitaro, which Bokuden unrolled and read with a suspicious frown.

“I suppose that as an ordained Zinja you should be considered a shiké. However, since you are not even wellborn enough to have a family name, I shall address you merely as ‘monk.’ Has your abbot explained this mission to you?”

As Jebu repeated what Taitaro had told him, Bokuden drew a scroll out of a drawer in his Chinese table and unrolled it, revealing a map of Honshu. “This is the season of storms, and the fishermen are turning to piracy. The season’s catch was poor. Therefore you will take the Tokaido Road to Heian Kyo.” His fingernail traced the thread of black on the map between Kamakura and Kyo.

Jebu reflected that the trading vessel that had brought him here had not encountered any pirates. But Bokuden undoubtedly knew more about piracy than he did.

“From here to Miya you will pass through country controlled by the Muratomo. The less attention you attract, the safer my daughter will be. Surrounded as we are by Muratomo, we would need an army to protect her if she were to travel in the state appropriate to her family’s station. My hope is that you will slip out of Kamakura and get as far as Miya unnoticed. The whole journey down the Tokaido should take you from ten days to a month.”

“I will need a horse.”

“You have no horse? Are we expected to supply you with a horse?”

“I bring with me no more than what you see, my lord.”

“I will supply the horse, and whatever else you need. But if you fail, monk, if anything happens to my daughter, you will die and I will seize all the wealth of your temple.”

Jebu pressed his lips together to hold back an angry answer. Like all boors, Bokuden imagined that the Zinja hoarded vast wealth in the dozen temples they had scattered over the islands. But Bokuden was undoubtedly too cowardly to make any move against the Zinja. Surely he knew that those who offended the Order never lived long. In a casual-seeming gesture Jebu touched the Willow Tree patch on his chest. Bokuden looked into his eyes and swallowed.

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