Shike – Day 28 of 306

Her little cousin Munetoki stared at her, his eyes shining with admiration.

Chapter Nine

On the day of the wedding feast some of the best-known names in Heian Kyo came to see the mating of a major councillor of the Fourth Rank to the daughter of an unknown, but reputedly wealthy, family of the provinces. Taniko had studied the guest list carefully. As the presiding priest, the abbot of the huge Buddhist monastery on nearby Mount Hiei intoned blessings and purifications, and the guests clapped their hands ritually. Whenever she dared, Taniko glanced here and there among those present, trying to match faces and costumes with the names she knew.

Many members of the Sasaki family and their principal wives had come to sit behind Horigawa to represent the clan. And another old and powerful family was there in large numbers—the Fujiwara. While they were not Emperors themselves, the Fujiwara had held supreme power in the capital until recent times. So many Fujiwara daughters had married Emperors that, among those who dared to be irreverent, the Imperial house itself was sometimes described as a branch of the Fujiwara.

In recent times, though they still enjoyed great prestige, the real power of the Fujiwara had declined. Their strength lay in courtly intrigue rather than force. But these days, with the rise of the samurai families, force counted for more.

Among those supplanting the Fujiwara in national importance were the Takashi, also heavily represented at this wedding feast. They sat in the front row of guests facing the abbot and the altar. Sogamori, chieftain of the Takashi clan and Minister of the Left, was a round-faced man whose partially shaven head was hidden under his black hat of office. He wore a red cloak embroidered with gold and lined with white satin. He looked as florid and petulant as Taniko had expected, given his reputation for bad temper.

The man in a similar scarlet robe beside Sogamori must be Kiyosi, his eldest son. Taniko’s heart beat a little faster when she saw him. There was a family resemblance to Sogamori, but Kiyosi was lean, vigorous-looking, and square of jaw. Oh, to marry a young man like that, instead of a spider like Horigawa. Such a young man, she thought, might almost help me forget Jebu for a time.

Kiyosi sat proudly upright as befitted a military man of noble rank. Yet there was kindness and intelligence in his face as well. She suspected that, like Jebu, Kiyosi could be frighteningly violent, gently compassionate or overwhelmingly ardent.

She wondered, will I spend the rest of my life comparing every man I meet to Jebu?

She wondered too what might have happened if, that night on Mount Higashi, she had suggested to Jebu that they run away together instead of going on to Heian Kyo. He was dedicated to his Order, but he was young and passionate. He might well have broken his vow of obedience for her. But she had not asked, and he had not been tested. Why? Because she did not want to give up her way of life, any more than he would want to give up his.

Just as he would not want to betray his Order, she did not want to betray her family. It was as Aunt Chogao had said: she was samurai just as much as any man of the Shima, and if war was the duty of men, marriage was the duty of women. If the men of her family could face the naked swords of their enemies, she could face the bitterness of a life with Horigawa.

The wedding banquet was long, and some of the guests left early while others stayed late. Much sake was drunk, but many of the guests were intrigued by a beverage from China called ch’ai. It was not new to the Sunrise Land, but drinking it had only recently become fashionable. As a wedding gift the Takashi lord, Sogamori, had had nine large metal boxes full of ch’ai bricks sent from one of his ships recently landed at Hyogo.

Sogamori and his son Kiyosi, sitting beside Horigawa and Ryuichi, were among the late stayers. Each banqueter had his small, individual table for food and drink, and each had several attendants hovering behind him. Taniko sat behind her husband and served his food and kept a sake jar and a pot of water for ch’ai warm for him. Horigawa ate and drank little, and most of the time Taniko sat with her eyes downcast and her face hidden behind her fan, with nothing to do.

“I notice you’re careful to drink mostly ch’ai, Horigawa,” Sogamori said in his deep, hoarse voice. “That’s very wise. You wouldn’t want to be too drunk to enjoy the night with your new wife.”

“I must keep my mind alert to converse adequately with the distinguished Minister of the Left,” Horigawa said in a voice as sweet as a plum. “Ch’ai sharpens the wits.”

“I’ll bet the lady is dozing behind her fan,” Sogamori laughed. “This banquet and all this men’s talk is putting her to sleep, Horigawa. If I were you I’d take her to bed and wake her up.”

“I’m sure you would, if you were I,” said Horigawa. “The minister’s exploits in the flowery combat are as well known as his valour in war.”

Kiyosi laughed. “As well known, but not as successful, eh, Father? You may have more authority and honour than Domei, but he’s bested you in the bedchamber.”

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