Shike – Day 169 of 306

She drew her index finger delicately over her eyelids. The tears that had brimmed her eyes were wiped away. She turned and looked at him, and her stare was dark, fathomless.

“Tell me exactly what happened. I didn’t grasp all of it the first time.”

Slowly and carefully, Jebu told her, starting with the first appearance of the Takashi ships at the mouth of Hakata Bay and ending when his galley had fought free and was on its way to China.

“All these years,” she said wonderingly, “I’ve hated the man who killed him, without ever once suspecting that it might be you. Unthinkable that my karma could bring me that much pain.”

“Taniko, there is no need for pain.” She was slipping away from him. He felt panic, as if he were holding her with one hand at the brink of a cliff, and was losing his grip.

“No need to feel pain?” She looked at him in amazement. “Jebu, I don’t choose to feel pain. Pain happens to me. All my life, it seems, has been filled with pain. Except for two times. One was the years with Kiyosi. The other was the last few months with you. You brought each of those times to an end.”

He closed his eyes. Her words hurt past bearing. He wanted to get up and run from her, run down the hill to the golden temple. He would throw himself on the floor and lie there in the cool peace of the temple until he died. Now, at last, he yearned for death as the samurai did. Plunging a dagger into his belly and tearing his guts open could be no worse than this pain in his heart.

“The Buddha said that life is suffering,” Taniko whispered.

Again Jebu tried to tighten his fingers on the wrist that was slipping over into the abyss. “The Buddha also said that suffering can end. That the poisoned arrow can be pulled from the wound and the wound can heal.”

Taniko’s eyes were quite dry now. “Yes. He said that the cure for suffering is to kill desire.”

“Desire for what is past, for what cannot be brought back.”

“All desire,” said Taniko quietly. “As long as I desire you, I will feel pain, knowing that I desire the man who killed Kiyosi.”

“You might as well kill me,” Jebu said, “if you are going to kill your desire for me.”

“Are not life and death all the same to a Zinja?”

Thinking still of the belly-cutting of the samurai, Jebu said, “At this moment, for me, death is preferable to life. If it will give you any comfort, any peace, I’ll give you my sword and you can run it through me.”

The look in her eyes was almost hatred. “For the Zinja and the samurai it’s the same. Life is nothing. Death is everything. So easy. Easy for everyone except those you leave behind.”

“Forgive me. It was a foolish suggestion.”

“No. Typical. Not foolish, typical of you Zinja, of all warriors. Even of Kiyosi. He was no wiser than you, after all.”

“I know that Kiyosi was a man to be admired.”

She was still looking at him with near hatred. “So you killed him.”

He began to feel angry. If she couldn’t understand how men who respected each other might fight and kill each other, she understood nothing about this matter. She had no right to hate him.

“Taniko, in battle you can’t pick and choose your targets. You try to kill everyone on the other side. They are all trying to kill you. I didn’t want to kill Kiyosi. I didn’t even know it was Kiyosi I was shooting at. All I knew was that I couldn’t let Yukio be killed. I didn’t even see it as a choice. I was guided by the Self.”

“Ah, I see. It was not you who killed Kiyosi. It was your god, the Self.”

“The Self is not a god. Taniko, nothing will bring back Kiyosi. Your son Atsue has been lost to you for eight years. Nothing can change that, either. Yes, my hand launched the arrow. But you must know, if you know me at all, that I felt no hatred for Kiyosi. If I had known what he was to you, perhaps I would have hesitated to shoot. I’ve always wanted you to be happy, and I’ve never been able to give you happiness.”

The dazzle of Konjikido blurred and swam in his sight. He heard blackbirds calling in the cryptomerias that towered above them. Their cries sounded like the battle shouts of samurai announcing their lineage.

“The last time I cried was when Taitaro-sensei told me how my mother was killed,” he said.

Taniko’s face was a mask, the powdered, painted face of a noble lady of the Sunrise Land. It was unreadable. She did not answer.

“If I could restore him to life I would, knowing that it would mean losing you forever,” Jebu went on. “All I’ve done is bring you suffering. When you found a new life with Kiyosi, I killed him. And now that we’re together again, I’m destroying it by telling you this.”

“It would have been so much easier not to tell me,” she said, her voice a cold silver chime. “It would have saved us both so much grief. Why did you have to?”

“Because you mean so much to me that I could not go on lying to you. If the shadow of falsehood had fallen between us throughout our lives, we would never truly have been united, body and soul. Our union would have been eternally blighted. That would have been as painful for me to live with as it would have been for us to part and never see each other again.”

“Then you told me this to spare yourself pain. I might have been perfectly happy with you if you had not told me.”

“Would you really wish to spend your life with me, not knowing this?”

She looked down at her small, pale hands folded in her lap. “That is a question that can never be answered. How can I say whether I would prefer not to know?”

“The man who unknowingly drinks poisoned wine enjoys it but dies all the same.”

“He may die happy, perhaps not even aware that he is dying.”

She had pulled her hand away from him earlier, but he had to reach for her now, to hold her hands again. It might be the last time he would ever touch her. She did not resist when he took her hands, but they lay lifelessly in his grasp.

“Taniko, you can spend the rest of your life hating me for Kiyosi’s death, but that will not bring him back. You and I might be happy together, if you were able to forgive. Otherwise, you will lose me as well as Kiyosi.”

She smiled faintly. “I can forgive, Jebu. I have already forgiven you. I know what you say is true—that you meant no evil when you fired that arrow into Kiyosi’s breast. Once, Kublai Khan told me about the Mongols killing all the children of a captured city. He explained that, since the men and women had been killed, the children would only have starved to death had they been left alive. The Mongols believed that killing the children was the right thing to do. You, of course, have never killed a child, but I can’t help thinking how much harm men do when they mean no evil. Even so, these hands, holding mine, were the hands that sent Kiyosi to the bottom of the sea forever, that took away my son’s father, destroyed my protector, left me defenceless when Sogamori took Atsue. None of it was your doing, Jebu. I realize that. I could never hate you. I can forgive you.”

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