Shike – Day 246 of 306

He turned pale for a moment, then smiled. “If you do kill yourself, I will see to it that Sametono dies. Painfully.”

That left her shaken. She warned herself to say no more to him. The satisfaction of besting him in a contest of words might cost greater suffering for those she loved. As it was, she felt no fear, nor did she reproach herself for what she had done. Instead, she felt an amazing joy and freedom. For many months now she had been a puppet, her every word and action controlled by another. Her life was hers again. She recalled that cry of “Kwatz” that Eisen and Sametono were always bandying with each other. She felt now as if she had shouted “Kwatz!” at Hideyori and all the power of his Bakufu and his tens of thousands of samurai. Walking away from him, she felt the fire of her hatred transmuted into a glow of triumph.

Chapter Six

Now that they were back in Kamakura, Taniko felt very near to death. She stood at the head of the long flight of stone steps that led to the Hachiman Temple, under a great gingko tree said to be five hundred years old. Hideyori had finished his visit to the god and now was descending the steps. He had dressed in warrior’s gear for the occasion. He wore white-laced armour and a helmet with the White Dragon badge of the Muratomo hanging from the sides and back. A quiver of twenty-four arrows with black and white falcon feathers was slung over his shoulder, and he held a tall rattan-bound bow in his hand. At his side was the Muratomo heirloom sword, Higekiri. A sword he had never carried on the battlefield, Taniko thought. His face was still suffused with fear as he left the temple. The visit to the ancestral shrine had not helped him. He had no one to tell his dreams to now. He had reached his life’s pinnacle, but he tortured himself more than ever with fear.

It was the hour of the hare, and an early-morning mist obscured the landscape. From the temple entrance Taniko could see down the steps to her waiting palanquin and Hideyori’s white stallion stamping his feet as a retainer held him. A small escort of warriors bowed as Hideyori reached the bottom of the steps. The main body of the army waited outside the precincts of the temple to begin the triumphal march into Kamakura. After that, life would end for her. Her only sorrow was that Sametono would inevitably be the next target of Hideyori’s suspicion and hatred. Perhaps, though, it would be better for the boy’s life to end now, a cherry blossom, while it was still beautiful. Growing up under Hideyori could destroy Sametono’s spirit.

She started down the steps after Hideyori, two maids holding up her train and sleeves so they would not trail on the mist-dampened stone. Hideyori levered himself into the saddle so stiffly that two young guards reddened and looked away, suppressing their laughter at the all-powerful Shogun’s awkwardness. Your rule will not be absolute as long as we can laugh, Hideyori, she thought. Settled in the saddle Hideyori turned to look at her. In his eyes there was a mixture of resentment and yearning. So, your feelings for me cause you pain, Hideyori? Then surely you will not let me live long. Hideyori waited, jerking his horse’s reins angrily to keep him under control until Taniko had descended the steps and was in her palanquin. He had ordered her to accompany him here, declaring that for the time being he wished to maintain appearances in public. When her bearers raised her palanquin, Hideyori raised his gloved hand in a signal to begin the procession to the temple gate. A long avenue lined with plane trees stretched before them, the trees veiled in white cloud and the distant gate, a great torii, invisible. The sound of horses’ hooves and the thud of sandalled feet on the pounded earth roadway sounded flat and dull in the misty air.

Taniko was staring at the small White Dragon banner fluttering from a staff attached to the back of Hideyori’s senior guard. A movement on the roadway caught her eye and she leaned forward and parted the curtain before her to see better. A man had stepped out from behind a tree to block Hideyori’s path. She gasped and her body went cold as she thought, assassin. But the man’s hands were empty and he wore no weapons. He raised his hands in a gesture that was at once command and invocation. He was very tall and thin and wore a grey robe. With his long white hair and beard he seemed a creature that had materialized out of the mist. But she recognized him at once, and the shock of recognition shook her to the very core of her being.

Jebu.

One moment her bearers were still carrying her along towards the gaunt figure in grey. In the next moment, without any transition, the palanquin was on the ground and she was lying crumpled among its cushions. She mast have fainted. She looked out through the curtains and screamed. The white stallion, whinnying in fear, had reared up on his hind legs and was pawing the air with his front hooves. Hideyori, arms and legs flailing, was toppling out of the saddle. Still Jebu stood with upraised arms, wild-eyed but motionless. Hideyori fell backwards over the horse’s rump. The samurai guards who had nearly laughed before at his awkwardness stared in open-mouthed horror. He crashed to the ground, landing on the back of his head and his shoulders, his chin crushed into his chest. His limbs sprawled with a clanging of armour plates, then lay limp, in odd positions like those of dead men on a battlefield.

The bodyguards, who would have reacted instantly to the sight of a weapon, had Jebu been carrying one, sat on their horses as if paralysed. Now, tentatively, one man drew his bow from its saddle case. Jebu’s head turned towards her. She looked into his grey eyes, but could read nothing in them. His face was all bone and deep shadows, as if he had been starving. Despite these changes and his white hair and beard, she had had no trouble recognizing him. Her eye went to a bit of bright blue on his chest. It was the embroidered Willow Tree emblem of the Zinja. Slowly, he lowered his arms. He looked at the fallen Hideyori for a moment. Without haste, he turned and walked back into the mist.

Taniko had climbed out of her palanquin by this time and had run to Hideyori, who lay without moving. Now she began to be aware of sounds all around her, the cries of her maids, the shouts of the samurai.

“Don’t let that monk escape!” ordered the guard with the Muratomo banner on his back.

“Never mind that,” Taniko snapped. “His lordship needs your help here.” Could Jebu be alive? The thought made her heart flutter, but she put it out of her mind. With Zen-trained concentration, she turned to what she had to do here and now. Where was that wretched horse? She heard the stallion galloping through the mist somewhere to her left. She knelt beside Hideyori, remembering that to disturb a man with a neck or back injury could kill him outright. Hideyori himself had not moved at all. She gently touched her fingertips to the right side of his throat. There was a faint, irregular pulse. She put her hand over his nostrils and felt air move against her palm. An age later, it happened again. With her index finger she carefully pushed back his eyelids. His eyes were rolled back into his head.

“He’s alive,” she said. One of the maids, frightened, began to sob. “Can we take his helmet off?” a samurai asked. “He’d breathe easier.”

“Moving his head might kill him,” she said. She stood up and swept the ring of samurai with a gaze that she hoped was commanding. “I don’t know how badly the honoured Shogun is hurt, but this was an accident, and there is no point in chasing after culprits. The most important thing to remember is that for the time being; no news of this must get out. No one is to enter or leave the temple unless I authorize it.” The warriors bowed acknowledgment. Taniko pointed to one man. “Go tell the chief priest that our lord is injured and we need priests trained in medicine.” The man leaped into the saddle and galloped off. Taniko next pointed to the senior officer with the Muratomo banner. “Ride to the temple gate and get General Miura. Make sure no one can overhear you. Tell the general what happened and say that I respectfully invite him to attend upon the Shogun with a few carefully chosen officers. Now. Some of you catch our lord’s horse. If he gets away, people will realize what happened. If you should find the monk we saw standing in the Shogun’s path, he is to be brought to me, unharmed, for questioning.”

Waiting for the priests to arrive, she knelt again at Hideyori’s side, her hands folded in her lap as if she were in the zendo. She took a deep breath and let it out again. She felt a surface calm, but she knew that in the depths of her mind powerful emotions were churning that would need her attention when she had time. There was silence all around her except for the murmuring of the maids and a few samurai repeating the invocation to Amida. Taniko was pleased that she had given orders without hesitation and that everyone had obeyed her. Evidently, she was the only one on the scene of this accident who had any idea what to do.

Four Shinto priests arrived on the run, their white robes flapping. Taniko stood aside to give them room. Two immediately began chanting prayers to Hachiman and other deities while the others examined Hideyori. After a time more priests brought a large wooden panel and placed it beside the Shogun. With infinite care they pushed the panel under him so as not to disturb the position of his body. They lifted the panel from the ground and slid it into Taniko’s palanquin. Waving the bearers aside, the priests themselves shouldered the palanquin and walked slowly down the roadway. They carried Hideyori to a large, thatch-roofed building just off the road, the house of the high priest of the Hachiman shrine. He greeted Taniko himself, showed her the room where they were laying Hideyori and introduced her to the priests who would treat him. Doubtless, she thought, this holy man saw her as a grief-stricken wife threatened with widowhood, and she tried to play that role. No one had any idea that before Hideyori’s fall he had planned to be rid of her. Now she was doing everything she could, little as it was, to keep Hideyori alive.

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