Shike – Day 165 of 306

“I’m glad we have no such thing here,” said Hidehira. “The Northern Fujiwara would never have been able to enjoy as much independence as we do if messages could travel with such lightning-like speed.”

“Your isolation is good for you but a problem for me,” said Yukio. “I need so much more information before my army can start to move.”

“All you need to know is that everyone hates Sogamori,” said Hidehira. “He issues whatever orders he pleases. Neither laws nor officials can oppose him. Even my cousin, the proud Fujiwara of Heian Hyo, must kiss the soles of his sandals. For a year now, Sogamori’s grandson, Antoku, has reigned as Emperor.”

Taniko remembered a conversation she’d had long ago with Kiyosi, when Sogamori was just planning the marriage of his daughter to Takakura, one of the Imperial princes. Takakura had an older brother whose claim to the throne must have been overruled if Sogamori’s son-in-law, and later his grandson, had become Emperor.

Full of eager curiosity, she blurted out, “What did Prince Mochihito do when Antoku was made Emperor?”

Hidehira whirled, his hair and beard flying, and stared at Taniko. Out of the corner of her eye Taniko could also see Hidehira’s wife staring at her in shock.

“Did the lady speak?” Hidehira said in a wondering voice.

“Lady Taniko intended no discourtesy, my lord,” Jebu answered. “She has just returned from an embassy of many years at the court of the Mongol Great Khan. At the Great Khan’s court women frequently participate in discussions with men.”

“Barbarous,” said Hidehira, shaking his head.

Pompous old fool, thought Taniko, giving a little snort.

“What about Prince Mochihito?” said Jebu quickly. “First he was passed over in favour of his younger brother. Now he is passed over again for his nephew. Did he protest?”

“There are rumours that he is furious,” said Hidehira. “But he has done nothing in public. It is that way with everyone in these times. Outwardly, all submit to Sogamori and his relatives. Inwardly they hate the Takashi rule.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” said Yukio. “As my proclamation spreads, there will be a general rising throughout the country.”

“The realm is ripe for it,” said Hidehira. “Every province has a governor appointed by Sogamori who extorts huge taxes and imprisons anyone who fails to pay. The landlords drain the fiefs of all they produce, leaving the farmers nothing to live on. Every Takashi-appointed official abuses his power. Sogamori is once supposed to have said that anyone who is not a Takashi is not a human being. It would be more true to say that anyone who is a Takashi is a tyrant, a murderer and a thief. People are harassed in everything they do. No one is left alone. The Northern Fujiwara have always hated the Takashi. Now everyone hates them. My son Yerubutsu will return shortly from a trading mission to Maizuru, which is not far from the capital. We will have more news from him.”

“Let’s hope he doesn’t come here with a Takashi army snapping at his heels,” said Jebu.

“The Takashi are incapable of moving that fast,” said Yukio. “But I would welcome their coming. If they came here I’d show you the art of warfare, Lord Hidehira. The Takashi survivors would never stop running.”

“Hidehira fancies himself a great lord because he has this mountain stronghold where no one bothers him,” said Taniko. “Actually, he’s backward and ignorant.” They were alone and lying together in their little guesthouse in the Fujiwara citadel. Her hands pressed against the hard muscles of Jebu’s chest. “Not even willing to answer a simple question because it was a woman who asked it.”

“Would you prefer to be back among the Mongols?”

In the darkness Jebu was no different from the man she had held in her arms so many years ago on Mount Higashi. His body was as hard and lean, his voice still smooth and quiet, with a trace of hidden power. His Zinja training included so many amatory postures that she believed that since their reunion at Khan Baligh they had never coupled in the same position twice.

“I would prefer that my people make one or two sensible changes in their customs,” said Taniko. “I have spent too much of my life hovering in the background at dinners where my thoughts were far more interesting than most of the male conversation I heard.”

Jebu laughed. “That’s why men won’t let you talk. They’re afraid you’ll shame them. It may well be that I’ll be the only man who is aware of the full power of your mind.” The laughter went out of his voice. “Taniko, we’ll be on the march soon. We’ll have to find a safe place for you to wait it out. Perhaps you could stay here at Hiraizumi.”

“I wish I could rejoin my Uncle Ryuichi at Heian Kyo. Of all the older men in our family, he is the one I like best. I did blame him for letting Sogamori take Atsue from me and for not protecting me from Horigawa, but those things were out of his control. The moment that cruel arrow struck Kiyosi, my fate was decided.”

There was a note of uneasiness in the gentle voice that came to her out of the darkness. “If Kiyosi had not died, you and I would not be together today.”

“I know,” said Taniko. “But the world in which Kiyosi lived and died, the world in which Atsue was born, seems to me a completely different one from the world you and I inhabit. By your thinking, I should be grateful to the man who killed Kiyosi. I could never feel anything but hatred for that man.”

Jebu was silent for a long time. At last she reached out and stroked his cheek. It felt cold, hard and smooth under her hand, like a jade mask. He is thinking that he owes his happiness to the death of a good man, and he is ashamed, she thought. It isn’t his fault, though.

At last he said, “You can’t go to the capital. You’d be in the thick of the fighting. What do you want to do?”

“I really have no alternative,” Taniko said. “If I can find a way to make the journey, I want to go back to the place where you met me, my family home in Kamakura.”

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