Shike – Day 22 of 306

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.

“That was the home of a noble who supports the Takashi,” one of the samurai with Jebu explained. “The Muratomo dogs burned it. Tonight we will burn some Muratomo mansions.”

Stupid, thought Jebu. People spent years of their lives building these homes and the beautiful things that went into them. Centuries had gone into the making of this lovely city. All to be destroyed in one night by some idiot with a torch. What prize could be worth such a loss?

Taniko’s uncle, Ryuichi, stood on the veranda of the main house of the Shima family’s Heian Kyo residence, waiting to greet his niece. He resembled his older brother, Bokuden, but was stouter in body and rounder in face, as if life in the capital had softened him. The look he gave Taniko as she stepped down from her carriage was kindly. His manner reassured Jebu as he prepared himself to leave her.

Covering her face modestly with her fan, Taniko said, “Uncle, this Zinja monk single-handedly killed a band of three samurai who were threatening to kidnap me. He faithfully escorted me all the way from Kamakura and brought me safe to your door. I hope you will reward him appropriately.”

“How awful that my lovely niece should have been in such danger,” Ryuichi exclaimed. “With respect to my elder brother, I knew the Tokaido was dangerous and I believed you should have had a large escort of samurai. But, thanks to the prowess of this monk, you are safe. I will speak to him in a moment. Taniko-san, it is not proper for you to display yourself in the open air before a group of men, even when the occasion is important. You must learn the manners of the capital, my child. Come into our house. Your aunt, Chogao-san, will make you welcome and comfortable.”

Without a backward look at Jebu, Taniko was gone. Ryuichi followed her. Jebu turned towards the street. He did not dare look after Taniko. What was between them must remain secret for ever. He felt a hand on his arm. It was Moko. Jebu looked into the crossed eyes and found them bright with tears.

A moment later Ryuichi returned to the veranda. “You have done well, shiké. You have earned the gratitude of the Shima family. How may we reward you?”

Jebu could imagine Lord Bokuden’s rage if he knew his brother was offering a reward. “The Order has been paid for my services, my lord. I may not accept a reward for myself.”

“Nothing at all?”

Then Jebu remembered. “There is one thing. I took a sword from a samurai I had to kill, protecting Lady Taniko. It is in her baggage. I would like to keep it as—as a memento of the journey.”

Beaming, Ryuichi clapped him on the shoulder. “Of course. And you shall have that horse as well. You may turn it over to your Order if you wish, but at least you won’t leave here on foot.”

Smiling to himself at the thought of Lord Bokuden’s annoyance, Jebu accepted.

A row of white stones, intended to represent the Shima trading fleet, crossed the centre of the pond in the mansion garden. Jebu sat cross-legged looking at the women’s pavilion on the north side of the garden. The pavilion stood on pilings half the height of a man that kept it well off the slightly damp ground. Taniko was in there, probably being prepared for her first encounter with Prince Horigawa.

Silently Moko stepped down from the veranda of the women’s building, bringing the sword and scabbard. They bowed to each other as Jebu took the sword, and Moko turned away, wiping his eyes.

At the eastern gateway of the mansion a servant was holding Hollyhock for Jebu. He opened his travelling case to pack the samurai sword. Under the lid of the case there was a piece of folded, red-tinted paper. Jebu’s heartbeat speeded up. He opened the paper and read the poem in Taniko’s hand.

The autumn leaves fall,
But the pine tree’s green lives on.

In a spasm of anguish Jebu’s hand crushed the poem. He wanted neither poems nor pine trees. He wanted the living woman behind the Shima walls.

He smoothed out the poem, folded it again and tucked it into his tunic. He mounted Hollyhock, sadness weighing down his shoulders. He waved to Moko, who had followed him to the gate.

Slowly, feeling that he was riding away from life itself, he rode out of Heian Kyo.

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