Shike – Day 21 of 306

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

Chapter Seven

Taniko joined Jebu at the edge of the cliff. Looking around quickly to make sure she was not observed, she took his hand and smiled up at him.

“If you are trying to decide what we should do, please let me help. As you know now, I prefer to make up my own mind.”

Jebu squeezed her hand with such passion that she winced, but she did not pull away from him. “What is your wish?”

“That we go forward. We will all go together to the nearest gate. You will wait there with the women and me, and you will send Moko and the other porter to my uncle Ryuichi. Moko will tell my uncle to send a carriage for me, so I can enter the capital in proper style. It is too bad that Moko has to make two trips into the city, but if you had asked me the first time you sent him, this is what I would have told you.”

They descended from the mountain and returned to the Tokaido. This close to the capital, it was a broad, well-travelled highway. Here on the city’s east side, buildings had spread beyond the walls. Temples, mansions and humbler dwellings encroached on the rice land surrounding the capital.

The party passed a park surrounded by a stone wall twice the height of a man. Within it stood three fortified towers, taller than any buildings Jebu had ever seen. Red banners flew just below the protective dolphin sculptures on the peaked roofs of the towers.

“That is the headquarters of the Takashi clan,” said Moko. “It is called the Rokuhara. Sogamori lives there with his sons and thousands of samurai. They have added many buildings since I saw it last.”

Now they rode over a long wooden span, which Moko called the Gojo Bridge, arching over the Kamo River. The bridge and the gateway to which it led were a continuation of Gojo Avenue, one of the ten principal east-west thoroughfares of Heian Kyo.

As they approached the city’s walls, Jebu saw that many of the large stones had fallen out of the pounded earth core of the ramparts which, unprotected, were eroding. He remembered what Taitaro had said about Heian Kyo’s having seen better days.

Sending Moko on through the Gojo gate, Taniko and Jebu and their party settled down in a field outside the city wall. Jebu stood guard atop a large stone, his back resolutely turned to Taniko. There was nothing more that could be said between them. Anguish lay like a crushing weight on his chest.

The sun had nearly set when Moko returned leading a handsome ox-drawn carriage, its roof thatched with palm leaves. Five samurai walked beside it. Clearly her Uncle Ryuichi was not as miserly as Taniko’s father.

Taniko and her two maids rode in the carriage. The samurai kept their hands on their sword hilts, their eyes darting warily from side to side.

Moko walked solemnly beside Jebu, pulling his wheezing, baggage-laden horse. He had promised Jebu and Taniko that he would remain with her as part of her household.

“I will be the link between you,” he said.

At the Gojo gate the party identified themselves to a lieutenant of the Imperial police, a nervous, pale man carrying an ivory baton. He looked incapable of dealing with so much as a band of mischievous boys. Smiling politely at the Shima family samurai, the police officer waved the party through.

“It’s a wonder that man was at his post at all,” said Taniko’s silvery voice through the orange-tinted blinds of her carriage.

To ease the pain of the imminent parting from Taniko, Jebu focused his attention on the sights and sounds of the capital. He had never seen so many people in his life; crowds filled the wide avenue like a river about to overflow its banks. People on foot dodged samurai on horseback and ox-carts piled high with bales and boxes. Every so often handsomely dressed men carrying small sticks would push through the throngs shouting, “Make way!” and then, slowly, an ox-drawn carriage, like the one Taniko was riding in or even grander, would roll through the cleared pathway. People would bow or peer curiously into the carriage, trying to see the great lord or lady within; usually the passenger’s silhouette was visible through the screened sides. Frequently these passengers would let the long sleeves of their many-layered costumes trail out through the rear doorways. Jebu heard knowledgeable comments from the crowd, not only identifying the carriage riders but commenting critically on their choice and matching of colours. The people of Heian Kyo talked much and rapidly, seemed to run rather than walk, and often talked and ran at the same time.

Gojo Avenue was lined with willows, the leaves on their trailing branches turning to autumn gold. The mansions along the avenue were surrounded by low walls of white stone, a token hindrance to intruders. But, a sign of troubled times, many of the mansions had new, high bamboo palisades built around them. Others looked abandoned, as if their owners had sought safer places to live. Each estate consisted of numerous one-storey buildings connected by covered corridors and surrounded by gravelled courtyards and landscaped gardens.

Twice they passed mansions that had been burned during the night. The grounds of one were completely deserted. Nothing was left but smouldering ruins. Burnt trees stood like black poles.

The second burnt mansion was surrounded by samurai, who greeted Taniko’s escort familiarly. Servants combed through the ashes for valuables and loaded whatever they could find in an ox-cart.

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