Shike – Day 23 of 306

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

Chapter Eight

Prince Sasaki no Horigawa made his first courtship visit to Taniko the very night of her arrival in Heian Kyo. Taniko’s Aunt Chogao warned her to expect him and helped her bathe and dress in her finest gown and jewels. She washed and combed the softly glowing black hair that hung to Taniko’s waist. All the while Taniko protested, trying not to cry and feeling as ill from the loss of Jebu as if one of her hands had been chopped off.

“I have been travelling for twenty days. I’m worn out. Can’t he give me one night to rest before he sees me?”

Aunt Chogao shrugged. “He told your uncle that he is extremely busy with matters of state. He is an Imperial adviser, don’t forget. Besides, he has waited a long time to meet you. You are lucky to have such an eager lover.”

Taniko made a face. Her aunt added, “Of course, he is lucky to get such a beautiful young woman. When he sees you, I’m sure he’ll be even more eager.”

How will I ever get through this? Taniko wondered. I was sickened before at the thought of spending the rest of my life with the old bloodsucker. But before I met Jebu, I never knew the kind of beauty that could exist between a man and a woman. Now that I do know, how can I give my life to something that is so much less?

For hours after she had dressed, Taniko, her aunt and the two maids waited for Horigawa’s visit. Taniko insisted on writing in her pillow book, despite her aunt’s protest that she might get ink stains on her fingers or her Chinese jacket. Taniko declared that she had never splashed ink on anything in her life. She offered to stop writing if her aunt would bring her a book to read, but the few books in the mansion, it seemed, were in Ryuichi’s quarters, and her uncle was not to be disturbed. So Taniko wrote by candlelight.

At last there was a commotion in the garden. Chogao scurried to the blinds and peered out. “It’s him. It’s him,” she whispered and waved the maids out of the room. She set a tall screen of state with flowered curtains in front of Taniko. For centuries it had been the custom at the capital for women of noble birth to remain concealed at all times from men other than their husbands or fathers. They received gentleman callers from behind portable screens of state. So significant a barrier was the screen of state that a man who got past it usually had no further difficulty in gaining his desire with the lady behind the screen.

Chogao snatched the pillow book out of Taniko’s hand and shoved it into the pillow drawer, seized the ink stone, ink stick and brush, and hurried out of the room.

“Pretend to be asleep,” came her voice through the sliding door.

There was a scratching outside on the veranda, and suddenly the blinds were raised and a short man with a powder-whitened face stepped into the room. His eyes stood out like two shiny black beans. He ducked his head to keep his tall black lacquered hat of office from being knocked askew.

Ignoring her aunt’s advice about feigning sleep, Taniko peered through the screen of state at her future husband. Prince Horigawa’s face was small and square, reminding Taniko of a grasshopper’s head. A wisp of black beard decorated his bony chin. He fanned himself briskly with a black and white fan, as if climbing into the room had been a great exertion.

“Are you back there?” he said, directing his dry, raspy voice at the screen of state. Yet he spoke only slightly above a whisper. Not very gallant language for a prince come courting, Taniko thought. The sight of him made her heart sink. He was as unattractive as she had imagined. In his beady eyes there was nothing but nastiness and calculation.

“I am here, Your Highness,” she said softly.

“Ah, very good, my dear. Let me join you behind your screen, where I can see you and make myself more comfortable.” Without waiting for her reply, he skipped around the screen, seating himself beside her and seizing her hand. She had to restrain herself from pulling free of his clawlike grip. Had her aunt left them alone together? Taniko wondered.

The prince patted her hand. “Do not be frightened by my impetuosity, my dear,” he whispered and grinned. At first it seemed to her that he was toothless, then she saw that his teeth had been dyed black in the Court manner. His grin faded as, still holding her hand tightly, he stared at her. Starting with her face and hair, his eyes travelled over her jacket and her many layers of skirts and dresses. He pursed his lips as he considered her selection of ornaments and her matching of colours.

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