Shike – Day 16 of 306

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.

Moko, drawing up beside him, interrupted his thoughts, which somewhat relieved him because the fantasies had begun to cause distinct discomfort. Moko grinned at him, and Jebu wondered whether the cross-eyed, gap-toothed carpenter could be said to have the same beauty of the non-symmetrical, the natural, the stark that Taniko and perhaps he himself possessed. Once again he was grateful to whatever kami supervised his destiny that he had not killed this man.

“Shiké, I wanted to tell you, since we’re going to Heian Kyo. I’ve been there before. I wondered if you have.”

“No, Moko. My travels are just beginning. How did you come to visit the capital?”

“My mother’s family lives there. It was the custom among her people for a pregnant woman to stay with her parents, so she went there and took me with her when my young sister was about to be born. I do not think she wanted to get pregnant again for a while, so she stayed there for three years.”

“What is Heian Kyo like? I’m so anxious to know.”

“Very big and very old. But you would think carpenters designed it. The streets are not winding and narrow as they are in other cities. They are straight and cut across each other to form squares, and they are very wide. Some are so wide you could put a whole village in the middle of the street and still have room left over on the other side. A hundred thousand people live within the city’s walls.”

Moko went on to describe Heian Kyo in detail and to tell Jebu tales of life there. Jebu decided he had guessed right about Moko. The man made a more interesting travelling companion than anyone else in the party. Except, of course, for Taniko.

The next day Taniko was riding beside him again.

“Please don’t distress yourself out of kindness to me,” he said. “It must be painful to ride next to one as hideous as I am.”

She shrugged. “The maids are more boring than you are hideous. Actually, I find your appearance interesting. Tell me how you come to look as you do.”

“I am my father’s son.”

“Well, then, why does your father look like that? Come, come, don’t draw things out.”

“My father is dead. He was murdered a year after I was born. He was a foreigner. His eyes were green, not grey as mine are.”

“Who killed him?”

“He was murdered by a tall, red-haired foreigner like himself, who came here to kill him.”

Taniko stared at Jebu. “You mean that while I’ve gone almost mad with boredom for nearly a dozen days as we creep down the Tokaido on this unhappy journey, you could have been regaling me with the mysterious story of your life? You are too cruel!”

“I thought you would find the slaying of the samurai Ikeno entertainment enough.” She was the one who was cruel; didn’t she realize it was his life, the story of his murdered father, she wanted to be regaled with?

But a Zinja did not own his life. He owned nothing. He passed through this world without leaving a trace. If she wanted his history for her amusement, he would unfold it for her like a paper fan, and when she was through with it, she could throw it away.

“I’m not the kind of person who gets pleasure out of seeing people die,” she said. “But a story, that’s different. Where did your father come from? Who murdered him? How did you come to be born?” Like a little girl, she jumped up and down on her sidesaddle with eagerness. “Please! Go ahead! Start at once!”

“My father’s name was Jamuga. He told my mother that his people came from a desert place far to the west.”

“From China?”

“North of China. They were wandering tribesmen, like the Ainu, who live on our northern islands. They raised cattle and fought among themselves all the time. They were so poor they had no houses, and instead lived in tents made of animal skins. They had no family names.”

“No wonder your father came to the Sunrise Land.”

“No, he came here against his will, in a way. He was fleeing from something. He came on a trading ship from Korea, and my mother said that he paid for his passage with a jewel worth enough to buy a whole fleet of ships. He carried a dozen jewels like that with him, sewn into his clothing.”

“It’s a wonder the Koreans didn’t kill him and throw him overboard and take the jewels. It is well known that the Koreans have no honour and would not be above doing such things.”

“They wouldn’t have dared. My father was the sort of warrior who could easily kill a whole ship’s crew. He was a huge man, bigger than I am, but swift as the wind and master of every kind of weapon. It was only his honour that required him to pay for the voyage. For a barbarian he was an unusually good man, so my mother says. Anyway, he landed at Mojigaseki and set out for the countryside near by. There he presented himself to one of the local landowners and bought, with another jewel, an estate with horses. With a third jewel he purchased my mother, and the most beautiful woman in the area, to be his wife.”

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