Shike – Day 31 of 306

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.

In the last century the Muratomo had quelled two of the most dangerous rebellions ever raised against the crown, the Early Nine Years War and the Later Three Years War. Ill-mannered the Muratomo might be, but they were peerless warriors.

Lady Akimi returned to the Wisteria Hall a day later. Her eyes were red with weeping, and several times she burst into unexplained tears in the presence of the Empress.

Sadako was a kind-hearted woman who couldn’t stand to see any of her ladies unhappy. But try as she could, it was almost impossible for her to persuade Akimi to tell her what was wrong.

Only when the the Empress herself began to cry did Akimi answer her insistent questions. “Oh, Your Majesty, I’ve heard that the captain of the Imperial bodyguard has shot my little dog, Li Po.”

The Empress looked away uneasily. “I had not heard that.”

“Oh yes, Your Majesty. But what really makes me weep is that Li Po displeased you. Killing him was the only thing to do.”

“I didn’t order your dog executed, Akimi-san,” the Empress said pleadingly. She turned to Taniko. “Please send for Captain Domei.”

Domei came quickly and prostrated himself before the Empress. She asked him what happened to the dog.

“As I told the Lady Taniko, Your Majesty, I felt that the only proper punishment for a dog that frightened Your Imperial Majesty’s cat was to let it be used as a target for mounted archery practice.”

“Barbarous,” the Empress exclaimed. “You have caused great pain to one of my most esteemed ladies. I am very angry with you, Captain Domei.”

Domei lowered his head. “I ask that Your Imperial Majesty order me beheaded in expiation.”

Sadako winced. “Please, Captain Domei. There has been quite enough killing. Just leave us now. There is nothing more you can do.”

Domei left. But later in the day he returned and presented the Empress with a little brown dog that looked to be Li Po. He insisted, however, that the dog wasn’t Li Po.

“I believe this to be the reincarnation of Li Po,” Domei said. “By a special blessing of the kami we have him back among us.” Akimi hugged the dog.

“How can this be the reincarnation of the other dog when it is obviously the same age as that dog?” the Empress asked.

“I wouldn’t pretend to know, Your Majesty,” Domei said. “I’m not a very religious man.” Seated in a corner of the room, Taniko hid her smile behind her fan.

The Empress said, “Might it not be simpler to say that this is that dog and that you did not kill it?”

“But that would mean I had disobeyed Your Majesty,” said Domei. “As it is, the dog has been disposed of as you ordered, but we have another dog and the Lady Akimi is happy.”

“Do the two of you imagine you are tricking me?” Sadako asked sternly.

Akimi immediately fell to her knees and pressed her forehead against the floor. “No, Your Majesty, never. We regret that we have disturbed your harmony with this matter of the dog. Dogs.”

The Empress dismissed them. The new dog, which Akimi called Tu Fu, was accepted as a resident of the Wisteria Hall.

The next day Akimi came to Taniko’s chamber. She was about ten years older than Taniko and one of the most beautiful women Taniko had ever seen, with large eyes and a face shaped in a perfect oval.

“Domei and I want to thank you for your kindness. If you had given my little Li Po to anybody but him, I might have lost him for ever. Li Po is a favourite pet of our son, Yukio, and he would have been heartbroken if anything had ever happened to him.”

Taniko bowed. “I was very grateful for the opportunity to be of service to you, Lady Akimi. May I say also that you are a marvellous actress?”

Akimi laughed. She held out a package wrapped in silk. “I would like you to have this. It is a small gift, compared to the life of a beloved pet, but I hope you will enjoy it.”

Taniko unfolded the silk cloth and found a book bound in red leather.

“This is the first volume of a very long story called The Tale of the Hollow Tree,” said Akimi. “It was written about two hundred years ago by an official of the Court. This particular copy was presented to me by my mother. Both the calligraphy and the illustrations have always given me much pleasure.”

“Thank you,” said Taniko, opening the book and admiring a delicately tinted painting of a weeping woman. “I don’t deserve this.”

Akimi looked grave. “Domei and I believe that you wanted to show friendship for us. We do not have many friends in the Court, and none among the members of your family. Forgive me for mentioning it, but there is undying enmity between Domei and your husband.”

“I know,” said Taniko. “And of course, I have a duty of absolute loyalty to my husband. But where duty does not compel me, I believe I can pick my friends as I choose. I should be deeply honoured to be counted among your friends, as far as that is possible.”

Akimi looked at her gravely. “Karma brings many surprising turns to our lives. We will think of you as a friend. Whatever happens.”

Later, reading the book Akimi had given her, Taniko let her eyes wander from the page. She was happy that her gesture of friendship had been accepted, but there was an ominous note in Akimi’s voice when she said, “Whatever happens.” Domei was obviously a proud man, and he had lived a long time with heavy grievances. Was the apparent serenity of the Court, Taniko wondered, actually the heavy silence that comes before an earthquake?

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