Shike – Day 183 of 306

“I have never forgotten that day at Daidoji,” he said softly. “To save your husband’s life, you emerged from behind your screen of state, your pale face modestly turned aside, your ivory fan held up before you. I thought you the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Now there is no screen, and you are still the most beautiful woman I know.”

“You’re too kind, my lord.” She felt her heartbeat quicken. There was something frightening about this brooding man full of cold anger. He lived among memories. He hated Yukio, it seemed, because as a baby Yukio had supplanted him in his father’s affection. He nurtured the recollection of that one glimpse he’d had of her nineteen years ago, and he saw her as she was then, not as she was now. She felt no desire to lie with him, certainly not after these past months with Jebu, but she had to be careful how she went about putting him off.

“Excuse me, my lord, but I know I can’t be as beautiful as you say. I’m thirty-four years old now, practically middle-aged, and I look it. It would take a girl closer to fifteen, as I was then, to equal the picture of me you carry in your mind.”

Hideyori reached for her across the table. “Some women do not age. Or they grow more desirable with age.”

Trying to move gracefully and wishing not to offend Hideyori by seeming alarmed, Taniko backed away from the table. “I think I have done all I can for you tonight, my lord. You need rest. I’ll bid you good night.”

She and Hideyori stood at the same moment. “You have not done all you can for me,” he grated. “I have never forgotten you. I have hungered for you for nineteen years. Even while you were giving yourself to Kiyosi, the son of my worst enemy, I longed for you. You came to me tonight of your own choice. You set up no screen between us. You said you wanted to comfort me.” He moved around the table and put his arm around her waist. He pushed her towards the sleeping area of his room.

He was far stronger than she, and Taniko knew she would not be able to resist him if he tried to force himself upon her. He knew she had lain with men other than her husband; at least, he knew about Kiyosi. So she could not claim to be a chaste married woman. If she tried to fight him off, she would offend him, with possibly disastrous consequences. She did not want to go to bed with him, though. What a fool she had been to separate from Jebu.

She whispered, “Homage to Amida Buddha.”

“What did you say?” said Hideyori in a low voice full of tension.

She remembered that this was a man who seemed convinced he could accomplish more for his cause by praying to Hachiman than by leading an army in the field. She thought quickly.

“I was calling upon the Buddha, my lord. I hope you will not force me to break my vow. It might bring bad karma to both of us.” Hideyori’s hand fell from her waist. “What vow?”

“As you may have guessed, my marriage to Prince Sasaki no Horigawa was not a happy one. In my resentment of my lot and in the strength of my youthful passions I turned to Kiyosi when Prince Horigawa separated from me. When Kiyosi was killed, I felt with absolute certainty that my lying with him had displeased the gods and caused his death. I promised the Buddha then that I would never again go to bed with a man other than my husband.”

Hideyori stared at her. “Thousands of woman have lain with men who are not their husbands, and the men usually don’t die.” He laughed. “Unless the husband kills them. Why should your favours be so dangerous?”

Taniko cast her eyes down. “You may joke if you like, my lord. I realize that Kiyosi was your enemy. But his death was one of the great sorrows of my life.” That is the simple truth, she thought, even if it is not the reason I don’t want to lie with Hideyori. That reason is a living man, and his name is Jebu.

It was as she had hoped. She was beginning to accept Jebu as Kiyosi’s killer. When she saw him again it would be as it had been between them in the best times.

Hideyori’s eyes smouldered with frustrated yearning. “At least tell me that you would couple with me if this vow did not stand in the way. Do you find me desirable?”

“It has been so long since I went to bed with a man that I’ve almost forgotten what it is like,” Taniko said. Now that was not the truth. “Even so, my lord, I do find you a very attractive man, and if I were to lie with any man in Kamakura it would be you.” That was true enough. She felt stirred by his desire. He was the sort of man who moved her, a man like Kiyosi or Kublai. He even reminded her of Jebu a bit. He had the same sort of haunted quality.

“Good. I want no one near you, then, but myself, while you are in Kamakura. Perhaps the day will come when we will find a way to release you from your vow.”

As she lay alone, her head resting on the worn wooden pillow that had been her companion throughout her life, Taniko could not sleep. Hideyori frightened her. She seemed to feel his desire surrounding her as solidly as the bars of a cage. She had stepped into that cage tonight, not knowing the danger she was in. She wondered whether it would be as easy to escape from it.

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