Shike – Day 15 of 306

He recalled that moment in the heat of battle when their eyes met. He doubted that he would ever forget it. Today she looked more beautiful than ever, and knowing her better, he now saw that the seeming ruthlessness in her eyes was simply a candid intelligence coupled with a clear certainty about how she felt and what she wanted.

She said, “You are reminding me of my rudeness to you on the first part of this journey. I’ll make amends. We’ll keep each other company. What bores you in yourself might intrigue me. And you might find me interesting, though I believe myself to be quite ordinary. Just as the bodies of men are of no interest to other men, but are quite fascinating to women.”

How bold of her! “I am sure that you are too young and too modest to know anything about the bodies of men, my lady.”

“Even so, I can talk to you about such things without fear of seeming foolish. You are young also, and a monk.”

“The Zinja take no vow of celibacy.” Jebu looked her in the eye. Just because I may not touch her, I need not hide from her that I am a man.

Taniko turned pink. “Oh, I see that I am in great danger. I’d better ride back to the protection of my ladies.” Her laughter tinkling in the warm air, she rode off through the high, yellowing grass. He felt such an ache of desire for her that his stomach knotted itself. Was there, perhaps, some way he could manage to lie with her without shaming her, endangering himself and dishonouring the Order?

Next day, after their midday meal of rice cakes, seaweed and dried fish, she was back again, riding beside him.

“How old are you, Jebu?”

“Seventeen. I was born in the Year of the Pig of the previous cycle.”

“And I was born in the Year of the Hare. You are four years older than I. That isn’t a great difference. I am old enough to be married, it seems.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest that there was anything childish about you, my lady.”

“Quite right. There is nothing childish about me.” The secretive smile and the sidelong look left him in no doubt of what she meant. “And since you Zinja are such lusty men, at what age do you marry?”

“Usually not until we are over thirty. If a Zinja can stay alive until he is thirty, he is considered a safe prospect to take a wife. Monks over thirty are given the less dangerous work to do. They are inducted into one of the inner circles of the Order, the teachers or the abbots.” Jebu smiled and met her eyes. “But when I said the Zinja are not celibate, I wasn’t talking about the fact that we eventually marry.”

Her wide mouth, the lips carefully painted a bright red, parted momentarily, and she turned pink again under the light dusting of white face powder. This one had a real problem with blushing. She gave herself away. Then that hard, intelligent look was back, the look that had surprised him the first day he met her.

“In your case I should think paying for a woman’s services—if she were that sort—would be the only way you’d get to lie with her.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you are the ugliest man I’ve ever seen. You’re not deformed, but you are strange-looking. Like a demon mask. Everything is the wrong colour. For instance, your skin is like the belly of a fish.”

“The very colour you try to make yourself with your face powder, my lady.”

“Yes, but my face powder is beautiful because my skin is not that colour, do you see?” Jebu did not, but let her continue. “Your hair looks as if your head is on fire, and your eyes are the colour of the sky on a rainy day. The whole effect is grotesque and frightening. I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you. And then, you’re so big—you’re huge, a monster. If you came anywhere near me, I would run away screaming.”

There was a time, a few years ago, when what she said would have hurt him. But Zinja training had taken hold, and he was able to respond with amusement. “All men are the same colour in the dark. And as for my size, some women have found it pleasant.”

“You’re vulgar, too. There is nothing more repulsive than a lecherous monk. What riff-raff the Zinja must be, if you’re any example. I declare, I would sooner make love to Moko the carpenter than to you.” It did not escape Jebu that it was she who brought up the subject of love-making.

“Doubtless Moko could construct a tower tall enough to please you.”

“You disgust me.” She rode away.

A moment later Jebu heard Taniko telling something to the maids, and all of them broke into peals of laughter.

Riding alone and in silence, he thought about Shima Taniko. Her small face with its mobile, expressive mouth attracted him. She was not really beautiful, but then, all beautiful women looked exactly alike. Hers was the beauty of a crooked tree, of an earthenware teacup, of an oddly shaped cloud. A sudden thought flashed through his mind: might he not possess, for some beholders at least, the same sort of rough, strange beauty? He wondered if this were a genuine Zinja insight.

He thought about the look that passed through Taniko’s eyes from time to time, a look that suggested something strong and sharp and flexible as a sword blade. Her position might be that of third daughter in a provincial house, but in her own right her strength and wit might rank her first in the empire. He entertained himself with visions of making love to her. His daydreams became so vivid he could feel her small hands scratching his back, her slim legs twined around his hips.

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