Shike – Day 19 of 306

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.

The sunlight glinted on two rivers that ran on either side of the city and on canals and reflecting pools shaded by willow trees. The huge black towers of the gates rose massive, complex and ornate at intervals along the low city walls. In and out of the eastern gates flowed endless streams of people on foot and in sedan chairs, litters, ox-drawn carriages and on horseback.

There was very little traffic through the western gates. The half of the city west of the central avenue seemed deserted and overgrown with trees. Only a few buildings scattered here and there poked their rooftops above the greenery.

Moko reined up beside Jebu. “Beautiful,” he said. “As always. That great street running south from the palace is Redbird Avenue. It is so wide that a hundred men could march down it abreast. And the gateway at the south end of Redbird Avenue is the Rasho Mon. That’s where you find the thieves and beggars and spies. I used to slip away from my mother whenever I could, to go down to the Rasho Mon to talk to the wicked ones. It was haunted by a ghost a long time ago, you know. A hideous demon that used to make people disappear. But Muratomo no Tsuna cut her arm off with his famous sword, Higekiri, and drove her away.”

“Why is the western half of the city so empty?”

“It has been that way for hundreds of years. The ground is soft and swampy and thieves haunt the area, frightening away the good citizens. Everyone prefers to live on the east side of the city. Do we go down there now, shiké?”

“No. It’s still a long way off. We’d never reach the gates before nightfall. And from what you tell me of demons and thieves, I’d rather not sleep outside the gates. We’ll rest here and go down the mountain tomorrow.” Jebu dismounted and bowed to the near-by grotto in a grove of pines where a small, worn figure carved in pale stone, Jimmu Tenno, first Emperor of the Sunrise Land and descendant of the sun goddess, stood guard over Heian Kyo. The Emperor was portrayed as a warrior in full armour, wearing a bowl-shaped helmet and a ferocious expression, and holding a short, broad sword more like a Zinja weapon than the long sword of the samurai.

The chill of autumn was in the night. Wrapped in a heavy robe borrowed from Taniko’s baggage, Jebu lay near the cliff edge and watched a full moon rise like a white lantern and touch the rooftops and canals of Heian Kyo with silver light. Poets, he knew, proclaimed the moon of the Eighth Month the most beautiful of the year, but sad and bitter feelings gathered like a dark pool in his chest. Tomorrow he would lose Taniko for ever. Just because he was young and a nobody and Prince Sasaki no Horigawa was a man of rank. He was not a very good Zinja, he told himself. Those monks up the road could take with calm the loss of hundreds of their brothers and the destruction of their monastery. He should be able to forget Taniko the moment his back was turned on her.

He wondered if he would forget her.

At last he fell asleep.

He woke suddenly and instantly. In the Waterfowl Temple the boys were encouraged by rewards and punishments to steal from one another during the sleeping hours, or to try to catch one another stealing. By the time he was eight Jebu had been trained to awaken the instant he sensed an intruder, but to remain motionless and to continue breathing as if he were asleep. Now he lay, opening his eyes just a slit, all his Zinja-trained senses focused on the person stealthily moving towards him. A small, light person, scarcely disturbing the grass. A rustle of silk, shallow breathing. A flowery scent.

“Who are you?” he whispered.


“Who is Saisho?”

“My lady Taniko’s maid.” By this time the woman had crept so close he could feel her breath on his cheek. The moon was high in the sky, but her head and face were shadowed by the hood of a travelling cloak.

“What do you want?”

“My lady Taniko talks of nothing but you. She makes you sound quite interesting, Jebu. Why should she have you all to herself?” Jebu laughed and reached out to stroke a soft cheek.

“Tell me, Jebu, are you as valiant in the flowery combat as you are in battles with arrows and swords?”

Jebu threw back her hood. The face in the moonlight was Taniko’s. “The lilac branch,” he whispered.

Sighing, he put his arm around her and they lay for a long time in silence, listening to each other’s breathing and gazing down at moonlit Heian Kyo. After a while their bodies began to move, their fingers reaching to touch each other under their garments. Jebu gasped as his fingers grazed her smooth warm skin. He pressed himself against her.

“No. Stop.”

“What if I can’t stop?”

“You must, or my life is ruined.”

“Forget the future. There is only here and now.”

“The Zinja are said to be magicians. Can you magically restore the gate of this castle if you batter it down?”

“What if I batter it down even though I can’t restore it?”

“Then I will be forced to kill myself. And you will be executed as a rapist. And your Order will pay dearly to my father.”

“I will not break through your castle gate. The Order commands me to deliver you safely to Prince Sasaki no Horigawa. The Zinja do not betray their Order.”

She giggled. “Is your hair red here, too?”


“Then I am glad I can’t see you in the dark.” She giggled again and her fingers teased him.

He drew in a sharp breath. “Why do you tempt me?”

“There are other pleasures we can share without your breaking into my castle. You can picnic in the castle garden.”

She continued with what she had been doing. The lightning would flash at any moment. It had been so long since he’d lain with a woman. The ground under him seemed to tremble a little. Was it the kami of the mountain, or was it his body?

The lightning flashed. They sighed together.

When he was breathing normally again he said, “You are very good to me.”

“I did that for my own protection. Now your battering ram is no threat to my castle gate.”

“The threat may arise again in time.”

“Until it does,” she arched her back and wriggled her hips against him, “you may perhaps enjoy the repast in the garden I spoke of.”

The lore preserved and transmitted by the Zinja included more than the arts of combat. Through the study of books from across the sea and with the help of the women who lived with them, each young Zinja became adept in the arts of the bedchamber. The Order treated these arts with the deepest devotion, as vehicles for the achievement of illumination. Even before he was old enough to participate, Jebu had been permitted to observe others in the practice of those arts.

The flesh is holy, Taitaro said. No act of the flesh is base or trivial. To fan the flames of desire is to heighten the power of the mind. To invoke the forces of life is to touch directly the light and wisdom of the Self. Taitaro taught Jebu a ritual and a prayer for his moments with women.

Now Jebo’s lips and tongue performed the ritual while his mind recited the prayer. I enact this mystery in honour of the Self. I ask the Self to enter into me with its power. Let the Self enter my body through the body of this woman and fill both of us with light.

Taniko started to cry out, then put her hand over her mouth.

They lay holding each other under the heavy robe, his lips against her neck, looking down at the squares of the city under the full moon.

Jebu whispered to her. He felt that the words were not his, but that some powerful kami spoke through him. “I am yours for the rest of my life and the rest of your life. As I belong to the Order, so I belong to you. Wherever you are, call me, I will come. Whatever you need, command me, I will do it. All things pass, all things die, but this oath which I take on your sacred body will not die.”

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