Shike – Day 216 of 306

There were a few chuckles in the hall from those who realized who the lady was and what Hideyori meant by “others at the Court.” Taniko sensed what was about to happen, but somehow she had not thought Hideyori would stage this kind of public spectacle.

“In return for our hospitality this lady has agreed to entertain us,” said Hideyori, pleased with himself. “Noble lords of the Bakufu, I present the Lady Shizumi.”

The doors at one end of the hall slid back and a tiny figure was revealed in the gallery leading from the women’s house of Hideyori’s castle. Taniko’s first sight of Shizumi wrung her heart. Yukio’s mistress was a beautiful young woman with huge dark eyes and red lips. Her long black hair hung unbound past her shoulders, black locks spreading protectively over her small breasts. She held herself very straight in a trailing robe of pure white silk, tied by a white sash. She is far more lovely than I was at her age, Taniko thought admiringly.

She had heard Yukio’s mistress was pregnant. There was no sign of it, but it was still cruel to put her through this ordeal.

Taking small steps, her eyes cast down, Shizumi moved into an open space in the centre of the hall.

“Why are you wearing the colour of mourning?” Hideyori demanded. “I told you to put on your finest gown.”

“Please forgive me, my lord,” Shizumi said. “This is my best gown.” She spoke softly, respectfully, but there was a strength in her voice that was surprising, coming from such a fragile-looking body.

Six musicians in Court dress with drums, bells, woodwinds and lutes glided from the gallery and seated themselves near the dais. Shizumi looked questioningly at Hideyori, and he nodded brusquely. She bowed to the musicians, drew an ivory fan from her sleeve and spread it open. Hideyori sat back with a smile, his hands resting on his knees. To force Yukio’s mistress to entertain him and his guests made his triumph complete.

The first notes the musicians struck were slow, solemn, booming, like the tolling of a temple bell. Taniko realized at once that Shizumi’s choice of white robes was no accident. Her dance was as mournful as her white raiment. Her measured steps, the bending of her body like bamboo in the wind, the horizontal rippling of her arms and the droop of her fan said that all things pass, happiness turns to sadness, each of us is alone at last. This was not what these leaders of samurai wanted to hear tonight, but it was a measure of Shizumi’s talent as a dancer that she changed the mood of the gathering. Every head was still, every eye fixed on the flowing white figure in the centre of the hall. In the eye of many a scarred old eastern warrior there stood a tear. The woman in white was a cherry blossom, blown from the bough by the wind, fluttering to the ground. White, those watching recalled, was the colour of the Muratomo. One day, the dance whispered, even the victorious banner of the White Dragon must fall. The music ended with the same slow, ringing notes that began it. When Shizumi was done, she sank gracefully to the floor. There was no cheering, no applause, only a sigh that rustled around the hall like the wind in autumn leaves. A far greater tribute, Taniko thought.

Hideyori alone was displeased. He gnawed at his moustache, frowning angrily.

“That dance was not suitable for this occasion,” he growled. “Nevertheless, it was exquisite,” Shima Ryuichi said gently. Taniko’s respect and love for her uncle rose. He had indeed grown braver since the days when he trembled before Sogamori in Heian Kyo. Hideyori threw an irritated glance at him, then turned back to Shizumi. “Sing something for us now. Something more cheerful.”

“I will sing of love, my lord.”

“Proceed.” Hideyori smiled thinly.

Shizumi nodded to the musicians. She sang in a voice that was rich and sad and husky, her red lips forming a circle on certain words, as if she were offering kisses to one who was not there.

The memories of love settle like snow
That drifts down from the mist on Hiei’s crest,
As I sit alone and the day grows dark.
Ah, how I grieve for the beauty we lost.
In the cloudland under a distant sky
He lays his head beneath a snow-capped pine.
That strange land is an ill place for my love.
Ah, how I grieve for the beauty we lost.

Amazing, thought Taniko. What courage this young woman has. Hideyori tries to use her to celebrate his victory over Yukio, and she seizes the moment to proclaim that she still loves Yukio and mourns for him.

In his mansion our pillows still remain
Side by side, though we are a world apart,
And I will not see him before I die.
Ah, how I grieve for the beauty we lost.

“Enough!” Hideyori shouted. He sprang up, his face suffused with anger. The musicians faltered to a stop. The hall was utterly silent as the guests stared, amazed, at the Shogun. Yukio, Taniko thought, you have triumphed over your brother even now.

“How dare you sing such a song here in my home,” Hideyori raged. “How dare you sing of your illicit love for a rebel and a traitor.” His fingers twitched on the dragon-adorned hilt of the heirloom sword Higekiri that hung in a jewelled scabbard at his belt.

“My lord, it is the only love I know,” Shizumi said quietly. She stood with bowed head, hands folded before her. She is ready to accept anything, Taniko thought. If he kills her, she will die happily.

Taniko was on her feet. “My lord.” She gripped Hideyori’s sword arm with all her strength. He whirled on her, his eyes so wild with fury that he seemed not to see her.

“Take a moment to think,” Taniko whispered insistently. “Remember who you are and where you are. You would disgrace yourself if you ruined your feast by murdering this child. Everyone would say that you made her the victim of anger because you could not find Yukio.” They stood, eyes locked, while Taniko asked herself, what am I doing, why am I standing here? I have forgotten myself as much as he has.

The rage faded from Hideyori’s eyes, and a look of sullen anger replaced it. “She will be punished.”

“She must not be punished,” said Taniko firmly, wondering at her own temerity. “She has suffered enough and deserves no punishment. What is she but a helpless prize of war? You dragged her before your guests and forced her to sing, and she had the bravery to sing of her love. If you punish bravery, my lord, what kind of samurai are you? What this girl has done tonight will be remembered. When the tale is told, will you be spoken of as the cruel lord who rewarded her fidelity with death?” They both turned and looked down at Shizumi. The young woman had thrown her head back and was staring, face flushed and eyes burning with a pure fire, directly at Hideyori.

“Get her out of my sight,” Hideyori choked.

“I will, my lord.” Hiding her hands in her sleeves to conceal their trembling, Taniko stepped down from the dais and went to Shizumi. Taking the young dancer’s arm, she led her through the silent crowd towards the gallery entrance. What have I done? Taniko thought. Why did I risk Hideyori’s rage when I have been so careful with him all these years? I must be mad.

Her body went ice-cold as she realized the full enormity of her action—publicly thwarting Hideyori’s wrath—but she also felt a satisfaction with herself that she had rarely known before. The feeling swelled, as they came to the doorway, to an exaltation almost like satori. She had acted immediately, impulsively, without a moment’s consideration. It was Zen that had inspired her to do this. Those hours of meditation followed by gruelling sessions with Eisen in which he demanded an instant response to the absurd questions he asked her—this training made it possible for her to act as she had tonight. The consequences, for herself, for Sametono, for this girl, for everyone close to her, might be dreadful, but she could hear Eisen’s voice saying, “When you do what you know you should do, the results do not matter.”

But it was not just Eisen’s influence. She remembered that long ago she had intervened to help a woman threatened by a tyrant. The woman had been the Lady Akimi, Yukio’s mother. Now Shizumi was carrying Yukio’s child. Strange are the meshings of karma, she thought.

Tonight I, a helpless woman, stood before the most powerful man in the land and defied his wrath to protect this girl beside me. Helpless? I am not so helpless, after all. As the two women walked together into the silence outside Hideyori’s hall, Taniko’s flesh tingled with excitement and the blood pulsed in her head, a pounding rhythm, like the beating of a taiko drum.

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