Shike – Day 200 of 306

“When a man and a woman put their pillows together, the karma relations that come of it are endless,” Hideyori said. “How could you have known, so many years ago, that your son by Kiyosi would go to war against his mother’s friends?”

“Did he die in battle? He’s just a child. He has not lived.”

Hideyori’s voice was strong in her ear. “The cherry blossom falls from the tree with the first strong breeze, but we do not say that it has never lived. A bloom that lasts only a day is no less beautiful for that.”

“Homage to Amida Buddha,” Taniko whispered. She released her hold on Hideyori and sat up. She had lost so much in her life—her daughter Shikibu, Kiyosi, Jebu. Atsue she had lost twice, once long ago and now again. Sogamori had made a samurai of him and sent him into battle to be killed, just as he had done to Kiyosi. She would not let this break her. As Hideyori reminded her, she, too, was samurai. She wept silently, knowing that all the tears she could shed would leave her inner desolation untouched, a vast emptiness like the Mongol desert.

“He has fallen from the bough,” she said in a quiet voice. “He will suffer no more. But I go on suffering. What sin have I committed, that I must trudge on from year to year, from agony to agony?”

“Perhaps you are being reserved for a higher destiny,” said Hideyori. “The steel for the finest swords is thrust into the fire ten thousands times.”

“I have no wish to serve a higher purpose. If I can’t die, let me live as a nun. My father threatened to put me into a convent the morning I left Kamakura to be married in Heian Kyo. If only he had.”

“A convent is no place for a woman as clever and beautiful as you. If you want to escape from your sorrow, turn to work. Do your duty to your family, to the Sacred Islands and to the kami.”

Taniko wrapped her arms around herself and clenched her teeth, trying with all her strength to hold herself together.

“Your son, Takashi no Atsue, is gone from this world,” Hideyori said quietly. “You must accept it and go on.” Atsue’s full name, which Taniko herself never spoke aloud, sounded like that of a stranger on the Muratomo chieftain’s lips. It brought home to her again the reality of what had happened. Atsue was dead. Killed by some Muratomo samurai. She could no longer contain her grief. A long scream tore itself from the very core of her body, and she burst into a storm of weeping. She bent double over the sword and flute, convulsed by sobs. Hideyori sat silently, his face averted.

At last her anguish subsided enough for her to speak. “Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. You have suffered greatly.”

Taniko’s mind went back to that terrible time in Heian Kyo when no one dared tell her Kiyosi was dead until Sogamori’s secretary blurted it out. “I am grateful to you, Lord Hideyori,” she said formally. “You had no duty to tell me of the death of one of your enemies. You were under no obligation to spend so much of your precious time with me to comfort me in my grief. I am obliged to you for taking this task upon yourself.”

“It might have been much more difficult for me,” said Hideyori, his glance darting sideways at her. “I am grateful that you did not ask me how he died.”

“What do you mean?”

Hideyori looked perturbed. “I meant nothing.”

“You have not told me everything.”

“No, no. I have said enough already.”

“I want to know all, Hideyori-san. Do not leave some ugly truth lying in wait to catch me unaware later on. Let me suffer now all that I must suffer.”

“Please, Taniko-san, do not ask me to say any more. You will regret it.”

“Did he die dishonourably? Did he commit some act of cowardice?”

“No, it was not that, Taniko. Will you force me to tell you, then?”

“Please speak.”

Hideyori sighed. “This sword and this flute were sent to me as spoils of war by my half-brother, Yukio. It was Yukio who killed your son.” Taniko bit her lip. “No.” Not Yukio. It would not be. Not Jebu’s dearest friend. Not the smiling companion who had helped her return from China to the Sacred Islands. She felt as if she were falling into an abyss without light and without bottom.

Hideyori went on. “Atsue was captured during the battle at Ichinotani by the giant Zinja monk Jebu, who travels with Yukio. The Zinja brought Atsue to Yukio. When Yukio learned that Atsue was Sogamori’s grandson, he instantly cut off the defenceless boy’s head.”

“Sogamori’s grandson? But Yukio and Jebu both knew that Atsue was my son:” Taniko felt her body grow cold.

“Apparently that did not affect Yukio’s angry mood,” said Hideyori. “It is well known that he has a furious temper.”

“Homage to Amida Buddha,” Taniko whispered, but the Lord of Boundless Light was far from her lightless chasm. “Was there a letter?” she asked, after a long silence in which she fought to overcome the pain.

“No. The samurai who brought the sword and the flute told me how your son died.”

“If Yukio sent these things, he must have regretted killing Atsue.”

“He sent them to me because they are Takashi treasures. Knowing I distrust him, he seeks to curry favour with me. I felt that I should give them to you.”

“Did the monk Jebu try to stop Yukio from killing my son?”

“If he did, I did not hear of it.”

“I would like to speak to the samurai who brought the sword and the flute.”

“I’m sorry, but he has already gone back to rejoin Yukio’s army.”

Taniko rose to her feet, clutching the sword and the flute to her breast. “Forgive me, my lord, but I must ask your permission to leave. I must be alone.”

“Kwannon bring comfort to you, Taniko-san.”

Knowing that everyone in the palace was constantly watched on Hideyori’s orders, Taniko decided to ride out into the hills. There she would defy her karma. She would kill herself. Of course, she would be reborn to suffer more, but at least the bitter memories of this life, in which she had been so cruelly betrayed by those she trusted and loved, would be wiped away. She considered leaving a final farewell message in her pillow book, but there was no longer anyone she wanted to write to. That in itself, she thought, is a good reason to leave this world.

Soon her horse was climbing the hills along the same road she and Jebu had followed twenty-two years earlier on their first journey together. The houses of Kamakura had spread into those hills, and it took her much longer to reach the thick pine woods. The path wound to a spot from which she was able to see the whole sweep of forest, city and ocean. The blackness all around was dotted by countless tiny points of illumination, the fireflies in the trees, the lanterns in the streets and gardens below, the phosphorescence on the rolling surface of the ocean, the blazing stars overhead. The beauty of this moonless night penetrated the numbness of her grief. She decided she would follow the forest path to the top of this hill. There she would sit under a pine with Kogarasu and Little Branch in her lap. She would take out the small dagger concealed in her kimono, and when she felt ready, perhaps at sunrise, she would cut her throat and let her blood spill over these last things she had from Atsue.

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