Shike – Day 110 of 306

“You come from a land so different from our own that I find it hard to see it in my mind. Yet there are qualities in you I like. You are strong. You are quick-witted, and you have lived long enough to acquire some wisdom. I will give you a little advice. Do not try, because you are among Mongols, to appear beautiful in the Mongol manner. Make yourself beautiful according to the custom of your land, no matter how strange you think you might seem to us. You are a woman of experience. You understand men and you have attracted great ones to you. Do not be frightened. Try to be calm and cheerful. Behave as you would in your own home among friends and family.”

“Why do you assume that I am calm and cheerful in my own home?” asked Taniko. Bourkina laughed.

“I understand your advice,” Taniko said. “You are kind. Thank you.” Remembering that Bourkina was one of Jebu’s people, Taniko felt a sudden surge of affection for the big woman.

Bourkina smiled at her again. “I am always happy to help a woman who deserves it. Prepare yourself now, little lady.”

“I will. Please remember to send paper, ink and brush.”

Taniko asked the Chinese maid holding the large mirror to circle her slowly. She held a small mirror in her own hand, and when the maid was behind her, she swept her long black hair to one side and studied the nape of her neck. Pure white, slender, defenceless. As it should look.

Red, she felt, was her most seductive colour, so she had chosen a costume built up of layers of red. Outermost, though, was a richly embroidered over robe of light green. It made her look young and innocent. The innocence would cover passion, a dark red robe. The sleeves of an unlined dress of deep red damask peered from beneath the two outer robes. Beneath these she wore three under robes of different shades of plum red, all visible at her throat, sleeves and skirt.

When she was fully dressed, only her fingertips and her face were visible in the midst of the flowing silks. The two Chinese women who were helping her dress tried to keep blank, impassive expressions, but Taniko caught them darting curious looks at her. Would she be laughed at tonight? She could imagine how the courtiers at Heian Kyo would make fun of a Mongol woman trying, in her native clothing, to make a good impression.

But she knew that she had not beautified herself this much since Kiyosi died. Horigawa might hope for her degradation, but she would thwart his hopes. She would not let them crush her. She called on the Lord of Boundless Light.

She had one of the maids tuck a cloth into her neckline to protect her outer robe. She seated herself on cushions and drew her box of make-up to her, asking one of the maids to hold up the mirror. She applied a layer of white paint to her face. From this moment her face must remain frozen. She could neither smile nor weep. She dipped a brush into a jar of red pigment and painted her lips, a bow shape for the upper lip, a narrower red line for the lower; her natural mouth was too wide for perfect beauty. With rouge she filled in a circle of pink on either cheek. Now her face was no longer that of an individual. It was the face of ideal Woman. It might as easily be the face of the sun goddess or the Empress or a peasant girl as that of Taniko.

She glanced up at the two Chinese women. They were not laughing; they were awed, looking at her as if they were seeing a statue in a strange shrine.

Now she opened her jewellery box. Horigawa was a fool to have left me all this, she thought. With these weapons I will conquer. For a pendant she selected a jade necklace with an image of the seated Buddha. And of course she would wear the mother-of-pearl butterfly in her hair.

Now she was finished. She looked up at the circular smoke opening in the ceiling of the felt tent. The sky was indigo. The sun must be setting. Bourkina had told her to be ready by sunset.

She seated herself on the cushions and waited. She remembered the writing materials and pointed to the writing box, adorned with a landscape of trees and mountains, set on top of her clothes chest. “If you get ink on your robe—” one of the maids protested. “I never do.”

She did not want to write for her pillow book. That could come later, when she knew what was going to happen to her. She would attempt a poem. She began rubbing the ink stick on the stone. One of the maids offered to do it for her, but she waved her away. By the time the ink was made she had her poem. She dipped the brush and wrote:

Fire warms all who come near. Only the light of the Buddha Can warm the fire.

She sat back, wondering what the poem meant. The two maids sat humbly against the wall of the tent to Taniko’s right so she would not have to look at them unless she wanted to. They, at least, see me as a great lady, she thought.

But how would she be treated tonight? Was this all some trick? she wondered. The interview with Bourkina, the opportunity to make all these elaborate preparations, was it all preparation for a band of Mongol officers to make sport of her at a drunken feast? No, Bourkina appeared, though a hard woman, to be honest enough. Probably some officer of the khan, some commander of a thousand or ten thousand men, would enjoy her tonight. Or perhaps he would find her dwarfish and freakish and would contemptuously send her away or throw her to the brutes in the ranks.

Now she could really feel how Jebu must have felt, living among people to whom he looked strange.

She must not lie to herself. Even if this Mongol general should find her pleasing, what would she have gained? A man she did not care for would enter her body and use her. Like those first years with Horigawa. Disgusting. And she must feign delight. And this, just so she could eat and sleep and be allowed to live. She still did not want to kill herself, but how much shame was she willing to endure just to stay alive?

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