Shike – Day 129 of 306

It was almost as if Taitaro knew what had been happening between the two of them, Jebu thought.

Chapter Nineteen

The temple of the Ch’in-cha was near the top of a steep, forested hill. They were exhausted when they got there. The journey began before sunrise, continued through a pleasant summer day, and ended with their horses climbing a steep mountain path long after dark with the aid of the seventh full moon of the Year of the Ape.

That night, for a change, there was none of Szechwan’s usual mist. Tall pine trees concealed the temple until they were almost upon it. It was dug into the side of the hill, the only external structure a carved stone entrance with a tiled roof.

Taking a tinder box and an oil-soaked pine-knot torch from his saddlebag, Taitaro made a light for them. Inside the temple entrance was a surprisingly large room, carved out of solid rock. It was five-sided, and in each side there was a triangular opening to chambers beyond. Taitaro led the way to the further opening on the left side of the entrance. They entered a tunnel.

“This temple was here when the ancestors of the first Emperors of China were village overlords,” Taitaro said.

“Is it deserted?” Yukio asked.

“At the moment, yes.”

“What happened, did the Mongols sack it?”

“No,” Taitaro said. “The Mongols respect the holy places of all religions. In this land the Ch’in-cha have long since given up living in communities of their own. The temple is used only when there is a need for it.”

Jebu had to crouch to walk through the tunnel, though the rounded roof was high enough for Yukio and Taitaro. The cool air around him had the pleasantly dank smell of a cave.

The chamber at the end of the tunnel was spacious. The scraping of their footsteps echoed from the dome-shaped ceiling. Looking down, Jebu saw that there was a mosaic design in the floor. Taitaro placed himself in the centre of the design. The intertwining lines were worked out in the six colours of the rainbow, against a background of concentric rings of black and white. So rich were the colours that the entire design seemed to vibrate under Jebu’s torch.

He noticed something on the wall of the room opposite to where he was standing. It was an eye painted on the rock wall of the chamber, the paint fading with age. In the centre of the eye was a red and white version of the yin-yang symbol. A bunch of wilting flowers was set in a small jade vase on a pedestal before the painted eye. Someone had been here a day or two ago.

Jebu looked back at the mosaic on the floor. Now he recognized it. It was the Tree of Life, the intricately knotted maze he had seen in a vision with Taitaro, a version of which was carved on the precious stone he carried concealed in his Zinja robe. This version of the tree seemed to radiate from the centre of the circular room, as if one were looking down upon it from above its many-coloured branches.

Taitaro seated himself on the floor in the centre of the mosaic, dropping down easily and gracefully despite his age. “Do you know how to meditate, Lord Yukio?”

“I spent a good many years in a monastery, sensei. Though I never could see the point of sitting on one’s buttocks and thinking about nothing.”

“I understand,” said Taitaro. “But there is a point tonight. Please seat yourself and try to meditate. Jebu, give me the Jewel of Life and Death.”

Jebu set his torch in a holder beside the entrance and reached inside his robe for the Jewel. He walked slowly to Taitaro, holding it out before him.

“What is that?” whispered Yukio.

“A shintai,” said Jebu.

“Have you been carrying it with you as long as I’ve known you? Why haven’t we had better fortune?”

Taitaro took the stone from Jebu. “It is the belief of our Order that fortune is neither good nor bad, Lord Yukio, and that in any case neither prayers nor spells nor deeds can affect it.” He held the Jewel up between his thumbs and forefingers and gazed into it.

After a moment he said, “Put out the torch.” Jebu stamped out the torch in the tunnel outside the room.

The chamber was not totally dark. Jebu noticed a shaft of soft, white light falling from the ceiling, striking the mosaic floor near Taitaro. It was moonlight, entering through a small circular opening in the centre of the dome. The moments when the moon was in precisely the right position to send its light through the opening must be rare, Jebu thought.

The three sat in silence until Jebu lost track of time. From long habit, he kept his eyes fixed on the Jewel in Taitaro’s lap, feeling that he could see its intricate pattern even though it was across the room. He seemed to be floating in a sea which had no surface, no bottom and no shore in any direction.

Gradually the shaft of light changed position as the moon moved across the sky. It struck Taitaro’s knee, then his forearm. At last the light fell upon the Jewel, which seemed to blaze up instantly like a newly kindled fire. A cool, green radiance filled the room. The eye painted on the wall was fixed on the back of Taitaro’s head. Taitaro’s eyes were fixed unblinkingly on the Jewel.

Jebu expected the Tree of Life to spring up before him in all its glory. But he saw only the burning seed in Taitaro’s palm. At last, as the light moved on with the passage of the moon from east to west, the Jewel ceased to glow.

Taitaro spoke, and his voice was calm and pleasant, but Jebu felt that he was hearing the voice, not of his father, but of the Self.

“You will go into the north, where the Wise One contends with the Keeper of the Hearth. You will join the Wise One, who has gathered men from many lands to serve him. You will fight for the Wise One, then you will return to the Sacred Islands. One of you will be betrayed by his own blood. The other will seem to die but live. The jewels created by Izanami and Izanagi shall be protected by the Hurricane of the Kami. Each of you will be worthy of his father.”

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