Shike – Day 18 of 306

Taniko looked at him, her red-painted lips parted in awe. “For a monk, you are quite an exciting person, Jebu.” Then she turned pink and wheeled her horse to leave him. Her gelding brushed, seemingly by accident, against Hollyhock, and her small hand, seemingly by accident, stroked the back of Jebu’s hand.

Chapter Six

The next morning, when Jebu awoke, he found a pale green paper among the arrows in his quiver. The paper had been folded into a narrow strip and the strip knotted around a small sprig of pine. When he opened the paper he found inscribed on it, in beautiful brushstrokes, a poem:

The red fire consumes the desert pine,
But the wings of the young waterfowl
Soar above the flames.

In the silence around him Jebu heard a redbird singing and his heart hammering. She had made this beautiful thing for him, for him alone. He rode over to her and looked at her and said nothing. As she watched, he refolded the poem carefully and put it inside his tunic, against the bare skin of his chest.

They rode side by side that day, sometimes talking casually, much of the time in silence. That night they reached Miya and stayed at the mansion of a Takashi lord. Jebu asked a servant for ink stone, brush and paper, and in his best handwriting wrote a poem the way Taitaro had taught him, going into meditation first, then writing whatever words came, without trying to think and without criticizing afterwards.

The young waterfowl tries to fly
But a snare hidden in the lilac branch Holds him fast.

The paper the servant had given him was violet. He found a fallen maple leaf of a shade that seemed to suit the paper well, and folded his poem around it.

The next morning he slipped the poem into a box of provisions their host had given Taniko for that day’s journey. At Miya the Tokaido was cut off by the sea, and they spent the day travelling by boat to Kuwana, where they could resume the journey by land. From the bow of their boat Jebu watched Taniko walk to the rail, unfold the violet paper and read the poem. Their eyes met and she quickly looked away.

The days that followed felt like a slide down an ever-steepening hill. With each passing moment their party seemed to move more swiftly towards Heian Kyo. The closer they came to the capital, the better the road, the easier the journey, and the more Jebu wished they would never get there.

When he was a child his mother had told him stories of the wonderful city of the Son of Heaven and of the adventures of the lords and ladies of high lineage who lived there. For years he had dreamed of the capital as the centre of all that was noble, wise, ancient, beautiful and rich. To see Heian Kyo had been a lifelong wish. Now it was the last place in the world he wanted to see, because seeing it would mean the end for him and Taniko.

At last they came to the mountains surrounding the Imperial city. That night they would leave the Tokaido and stay at the Zinja Temple of the New Moon on Mount Higashi, overlooking the capital. It was one of the largest Zinja enclaves in the Sacred Islands, housing over four hundred monks. The Imperial officials of Heian Kyo lived in mortal fear of the Zinja monks dwelling on Mount Higashi. More than once the monks had descended into the city to punish some noble who had offended them. The Imperial troops were no match for monks trained in the Zinja arts of combat. Once or twice the Zinja could even have seized control of the capital, but the rule of the Order forbade them to hold political power.

Jebu sensed something wrong as soon as he glimpsed the temple. Where there should have been stone walls and towers there was a heap of broken rocks. No rooftops were visible above the jumbled stones. Telling the others to wait, he rode on ahead.

“Earthquake,” one member of a group of monks seated on the tumbled-down monastery walls told him. “Two nights ago the kami of this mountain shook us as a wild horse shakes off a man who tries to ride him. Then it took the form of a shark and opened its mouth and swallowed us by the hundreds.”

“By the hundreds?”

“These brothers you see here are all who are left.” The monk raised an admonitory hand. “You look shocked. Do not be. It is not our way to let disaster overwhelm us. We pass through life leaving no trace. This is as true for hundreds as for one. What happened was neither good nor evil. It simply happened. We will move on.”

“Will you try to rebuild?”

“Perhaps. We will await word from the Council of Abbots on whether to rebuild or simply to join another community. I am sorry we cannot offer you and your party hospitality, but you will be more comfortable sleeping under the stars. And safer. The god of the mountain may shake us again at any time. There is a lovely shrine to the Emperor Jimmu down the road. There you will be protected by the Emperor’s spirit. And there is a view of Heian Kyo. Let me direct you to it.”

Their path took them out of the forest and to the edge of a cliff. Suddenly all of Heian Kyo lay spread out before them on the gently sloping plain below. The sun was low over the mountains in the west, and it bathed the city in the golden glow of late afternoon. The dark rooftops of the city and the trees from which they emerged, stretching into the distance, took on a purple colour and seemed to float in a violet haze.

Jebu recognized the Nine-Fold Enclosure, the grounds of the Imperial palace, from the many descriptions of it he had heard. It was a town in itself. The gigantic Great Hall of State, with its elaborate roof of green glazed tiles, towered over the other buildings. South of the palace enclosure was a spacious park with a large lake, a hill and a thatch-roofed pavilion.

From the centre gate of the palace grounds an avenue as wide as a river, paved with black stone, swept all the way to the southern wall of the city. Other streets running north and south and intersecting with avenues running east and west subdivided the city into many squares, each a park, each dotted with palaces.

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