Shike – Day 20 of 306

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.”

“Oh, Jebu, whatever words are said to bless my union with Prince Horigawa, those words will be dry and dead as autumn leaves. The lilac branch will always be waiting for the waterfowl.”

Jebu felt tears come to his eyes. He pictured years and years to come, a desert of time in which he would wander, separated from Taniko.

He must have fallen asleep. When he awoke again Taniko was gone and the ground was cold. The moon had set, and he could see someone standing near by looking over the edge of the cliff. He stood up. There was a pink glow in the east, the glow of dawn. But there was a red light nearer at hand that sent a chill down the back of his neck.

Heian Kyo was on fire.

Looking closely, he saw that banners of flame were fluttering above certain scattered palaces while others, though brightly lit, remained untouched. In the dawn’s glow and the firelight Jebu could make out figures milling in the streets and around the gates. Screams and faint war cries reached his ears.

Moko came to stand beside him and turned frightened eyes up to him. “Shiké, there is war in the streets of the capital. A little while ago I heard sounds that made me uneasy. I got up and looked over the cliff edge. I saw palaces burst into flames, men fighting in the streets. Shall I wake the others? What shall we do?”

“We will do nothing until we know exactly what is happening. Let the others sleep. You and I will watch.” Jebu squatted down at the cliff edge. He looked over to the dark, silent shape of the tent Taniko shared with her maids.

By the time the warmth of the sun woke the others, a pall of smoke hung over Heian Kyo. Motionless figures could be seen lying in the broad streets and avenues while riders on horseback raced up and down.

Tears streamed down Taniko’s face. “Oh, Jebu, it was so lovely last night, and now it is being destroyed.” The sunlight sparkled in her tear-filled eyes. Perhaps the eyes are most beautiful when wet with tears, Jebu thought. He felt his own eyes grow hot and wet, and her face blurred. But he was not weeping for Heian Kyo. Her fingers touched the back of his hand.

“You were beautiful last night,” he said, “and you are still beautiful in the sunrise.”

She shook her head. “For me the sun is setting.”

She turned and walked away to join the two maidservants, who were standing before the statue of Emperor Jimmu in the dark green grove of pines. What Jebu felt, he had no name for. A woman gave you pleasure, and you remembered her fondly. That feeling was pleasant. That feeling was no bigger than a forest pool. What he felt now was pain, a pain that almost made him forget the strange and terrible sight of Heian Kyo’s agony. This feeling was an ocean. It seemed, at that moment, that life was over for him, that he was already dead. Taitaro was forever saying that we should live as if already dead. If this was what he meant, he was wrong. This was unbearable.

To ease the pain he forced himself to consider the immediate problem. “Moko, you know Heian Kyo. Go down there and try to find out what has happened. Find the house of Prince Sasaki no Horigawa and make sure all is well with him. See whether it will be safe for us to bring the Lady Taniko into the city. Then meet us here.”

The cross-eyed carpenter came back after the midday meal. He shook his head sadly. “The beautiful streets of Heian Kyo have become a battleground for samurai. Such things did not occur when I was a child.”

“Tell me exactly what has happened, Moko-san.”

Moko waved his hands in distress. “It was all over nothing. A street-corner brawl between Takashi and Muratomo samurai. But hundreds joined in. Then bands of samurai took to attacking people’s houses. The Takashi samurai burned the houses of Muratomo families and killed their servants. The Muratomo did the same thing to the Takashi.”

“What of Prince Horigawa?”

“It was hard to find out anything about him, shiké. If you ask too many questions, people look upon you as a suspicious person, and suspicious persons don’t live long in Heian Kyo today. The Takashi have put a heavy guard around the prince’s house, though. He is safe enough.”

Jebu recalled that Taniko’s family was a branch of the Takashi. “Is Lady Taniko’s family in any danger?”

“Shiké, everyone who lives in Heian Kyo is in danger today. But the Shima mansion is not among those I heard were burned.”

Jebu felt a momentary panic as he realized he was uncertain what to do next. The only thing about this journey he had never questioned was its unchanging destination.

Rely on nothing under heaven.

Now he had to decide whether to take Taniko into a city torn apart by warring samurai or whether to seek uncertain refuge somewhere in these hills. Perhaps he should defy her father and the Order and flee with her in the hope that they might find a life together in hiding somewhere. Just as his father fled his people.

He looked at smouldering Heian Kyo. Whatever he decided might bring swift death to himself and Taniko.

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