Shike – Day 29 of 306

“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.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sogamori growled. “Neither do I,” said Horigawa.

Kiyosi said, “Your Highness is so conscientiously devoted to affairs of state, you pay no attention to affairs of the heart. I’m referring to my father’s impetuous wooing of Lady Akimi.”

“You ought to have more respect for your father than to mention such things in public,” said Sogamori irritably.

“You should have more respect for your clan, Father, than to make us a laughing-stock at Court.” Kiyosi’s tone was light, but there was a barely concealed edge in his voice.

Taniko was surprised that Kiyosi would needle his father in front of herself, Horigawa and Ryuichi. She knew quite well what they were talking about. All the Shima women were laughing over Sogamori’s rude attempt to seduce Akimi, the beautiful lady-in-waiting who had been Domei’s mistress for many years.

Like most of Heian Kyo’s aristocrats, Sogamori had many women in his life. Besides his principal wife, Kiyosi’s mother, he had a number of secondary wives, each of whom had her apartment in the Rokuhara. Gossip also attributed one or two mistresses to him at any given time. But, just as he was always reaching for more power in the realm, so he was always pursuing new women. Taking advantage of the Muratomo lord’s temporary absence from the capital, Sogamori had laid siege to Lady Akimi with flute-playing, poetry, dancing and flowers, as if he had but to display his interest to win her. All this despite the fact that Akimi already had a son by Domei. Akimi adamantly ignored Sogamori’s advances and he eventually had to give up. The Court, which had come to fear him, enjoyed the opportunity of ridiculing him. When Domei returned and heard about the incident, he was enraged at first, but ended up laughing along with everyone else.

“The lady showed poor taste,” Ryuichi ventured. “How could she prefer a rough, ill-mannered warrior like Captain Domei to a polished gentleman like Lord Sogamori?”

Sogamori looked at him sourly, obviously unimpressed by the flattery.

“With respect, Ryuichi-san,” said Kiyosi. “Warriors are not to be sneered at. We Takashi, are we not a clan of warriors?”

Taniko couldn’t help but look directly at Kiyosi, drawn by the strong, pleasant voice. She knew it was shameful for a woman to look into the eyes of any man other than her husband, but her growing fascination with Kiyosi, fed by her dislike for Horigawa, drove her to stare directly at him for the briefest of moments. The large, dark eyes held hers, enchanting her. She gave a little gasp and then looked down at the charcoal warmer she was watching over.

Kiyosi held his sake cup out to her to cover the look she had given him. She quickly raised the white porcelain jar and filled the dainty cup.

“Neither gentlemen nor warriors should concern themselves with idle Court gossip,” said Horigawa sententiously.

“You need not interest yourself in women of the Court,” said Sogamori. “Your own wife far outshines Akimi in beauty.” He raised his sake cup towards Taniko and drank. She felt a chill of fear at the undertone of lechery in his voice.

Horigawa said with faint contempt, “She is merely a young girl of provincial family, not used to the ways of the capital.”

“She is of good family, related to the Takashi,” Sogamori retorted. “You forget yourself at times, Horigawa. Or else you forget who I am. Your wife will learn the ways of the capital. The courtiers laughed at my father for his clumsy dancing when he visited the great temples, but I was born here in Heian Kyo and my father saw to it that I studied under the finest dancing masters. Now, when I dance before the gods, no one laughs at me.”

“No one would dare,” said Kiyosi wryly. “You’d have their heads.”

“Is it not this little wife of yours who translated the letter from China for me?” Sogamori asked. “Her handwriting is exquisite.” Horigawa bowed as if he himself had been complimented.

He squints like an old ape, Taniko thought. She screened her face with her fan, conscious of Kiyosi smiling at her.

From the pillow book of Shima Taniko:

Old Squint-Eyes has arranged for me to be appointed a lady-in-waiting to the Empress, a unique honour for a girl born and raised so far from the capital. I am to be presented at Court on the first day of the Eleventh Month, as soon as the inauspicious Tenth Month, during which the kami are absent, is over. Uncle Ryuichi is tearing his garments over the cost of my new wardrobe, but I have promised that whenever I can I will pass on secrets of the China trade. One good investment will repay the cost of my Court robes many times over.

I have already learned a number of fascinating things about China, just from the three letters I have now translated for my husband. For one thing, there are two Chinas, a northern China, also called Cathay, which is ruled by ferocious barbarians, and a southern China, which is governed from Linan by an Emperor of the Sung dynasty.

The barbarians, known as Mongols, who rule Cathay have conquered many kingdoms to the north and west of China. They were making war on the Sung Emperor, but they stopped three years ago, when their own Emperor, whom they call Great Khan, died. When their Great Khan dies these Mongols immediately cease all warfare until they have chosen a new ruler. They choose their Emperors at a great council of the Mongol chieftains. A strange and frightening people.

As for me, I cannot wait to take up my duties at Court.

-Ninth Month, twentieth day


Used to the bustle of a provincial family devoted to war, land and trade, Taniko found life within the Nine-Fold Enclosure very different and very elegant, but frequently dull. Ladies-in-waiting lived most of the time in the Empress’s residence, the Wisteria Hall. Nothing ever happened except when the diviners declared the day auspicious or when the calendar called for the performance of some age-old rite. There were endless stretches of idle time during which the ladies-in-waiting entertained one another by playing games such as go and backgammon or holding contests in poetry-writing, flower-matching or incense-comparing.

One afternoon in early spring a commotion in the Empress’s chambers caught Taniko’s ear—barks and growls, mewings and hissings, the shrieks and screams of the Empress and other women. Taniko rushed into Her Imperial Majesty’s bedroom.

The Empress’s favourite cat, Myobu, a beautiful creature with long orange hair, was perched atop a tall mahogany cabinet, screaming feline imprecations and batting its claws at a brown dog no bigger than itself. The dog kept up a ferocious, high-pitched bark and bounded into the air, trying to get at the Empress’s cat.

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