Shike – Day 30 of 306

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.

Empress Sadako, normally a placid woman, was as frightened by the dog’s frenzy as her cat was, and was weeping with anxiety. She and the other ladies in the room were rendered helpless by their distress.

“Oh, Taniko-san, rescue Myobu. Please, please hurry.”

With a bow to the Empress, Taniko seized the dog and tucked him under her arm. He squirmed and barked furiously. He was of a Chinese breed and looked to Taniko like a giant furry frog. Taniko recognized the dog at once. He was called Li Po and belonged to Lady Akimi, Domei’s mistress. Akimi had been away from the palace for several days. It was customary for ladies-in-waiting to retire to their homes during their unclean time of the month.

Taniko knew Akimi as well as she knew most of the Empress’s attendants, but there was something that set her apart from the other women, a calm nobility of manner that made Taniko want to get to know her better. But Akimi was reserved with Taniko. After all, Taniko was married to one of the Muratomo family’s worst enemies. Akimi could not know that Taniko heartily approved of Akimi’s lover. She had seen the dashing, moustachioed Captain Domei riding in the grounds at the head of the palace guard. How could the bear-like Sogamori imagine that he could compete with such a man for Akimi’s favours? She had heard how the previous Emperor, now retired, had ill-treated Domei, how he had repaid Domei’s loyalty to him during the insurrection by ordering him to execute his own father, how Domei had been neglected while that Emperor and his successor showered favours, offices and honours on his Takashi rivals. Her heart went out to Domei.

Empress Sadako floundered over to the cabinet, her skirts and underskirts billowing around her, and held up her arms to the cat. “Come down, my precious, come to Mother.” Myobu jumped into the Empress’s arms.

Her Imperial Majesty turned to Taniko. “That dog has terrified my poor Myobu. Animals like that should not be permitted to run loose in the palace. Have him punished.”

Taniko was about to point out that the dog belonged to one of Her Imperial Majesty’s senior ladies, but she realized that the Empress probably knew that and preferred not to acknowledge it. Did Sadako want the dog destroyed? Taniko decided it would be best to get the animal out of sight and not to ask any more questions.

But, she thought as she hurried out of the Wisteria Hall with Li Po in her arms, if she had Akimi’s dog killed, she would make a permanent enemy of Domei’s mistress, who already, regrettably, had reason to dislike her. Besides, she liked the little dog. He lay in her arms calmly and trustingly. At the foot of the Wisteria Hall’s steps, she looked about her. In the distance a group of officers of the palace guards were playing football in front of the Hall of Military Virtues.

The game was an ancient favourite with male nobles. A circle of men tried to keep a soft leather ball in the air as long as possible, solely by kicking it. Taniko approached them. She knew a few of the guard officers slightly, and one of them might have an idea about what to do with the dog.

Once again Taniko thanked her karma that she was serving at the Court, where she was permitted to go and talk to anyone, man or woman, face-to-face. It must be maddening to spend all one’s days and nights hiding behind a screen or fan as noble ladies who lived at home did.

One of the football players was Domei. That gave her an idea.

Domei must have been at least ten years older than any of the other men playing, but he had the greatest energy and enthusiasm. He played competitively, trying to keep the ball to himself, kicking it out from under the noses of the other players, aiming his kicks so close to their heads that they were forced to back off. The men playing with him laughed heartily at each new display of Domei’s aggressiveness.

Taniko waited until there was a break in the game, then diffidently beckoned Domei. The captain came to her at once and bowed.

“Lady Taniko, how may I serve you?” If he felt any hostility towards her because of her husband, he didn’t show it.

His breath steamed on the winter air. Muratomo no Domei was a tall, broad-shouldered man with the dark complexion of one who spent most of his time outdoors, an unfashionable colour at a Court where men and women powdered their faces to make themselves even paler. His forehead was high and bulging. All his hair was shaved away except for the lock on top neatly tied in the samurai topknot. His large head gleamed with perspiration. His big moustache drew attention to his most unfortunate feature, protruding front teeth.

Taniko explained about the Empress’s wish to punish the dog. She didn’t bother to point out that it was Akimi’s pet. She was sure Domei recognized it.

“Frightening Her Imperial Majesty’s cat is a grave offence. I will take charge of the prisoner.” He took the dog from her hands and held him, stroking his head.

“What are you going to do with him, captain-san?” Taniko asked uncertainly.

“Well, the palace guards use stray dogs for archery practice.” Shocked, Taniko put a hand to her mouth.

“Would you like to witness the execution, my lady?”

“No, no.”

Taniko’s impression of the Muratomo was still coloured by the uncouth oryoshi Jebu had killed last year on the Tokaido. But that man wasn’t a member of the Muratomo family, just one of their paid supporters. Domei seemed pleasant and kindly enough, although his manners did lack the refinement one found in members of the old families of the capital. Taniko didn’t believe Domei would really kill Akimi’s dog.

Everyone said the Muratomo were dreadfully crude, but Domei was undoubtedly an excellent choice for the post of captain of the palace guard. He was obviously a born fighter, as different from the stout, moon-faced courtiers as a falcon is from a partridge.

When it came to military glory there were more legends about the Muratomo family than any other. They had migrated to the eastern provinces centuries before to build up their fortunes. There they spearheaded the opening up of the rich rice lands of the Kanto plain, driving the savage hairy Ainu before them. Their patron kami was Hachiman, god of war, and one Muratomo general who won dazzling victories was called Hachiman’s Oldest Son.

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