Shike – Day 36 of 306

It was the hour of the ox, the blackest part of the night. Taniko went to her chamber in the women’s house, tended by sleepy maidservants she had come to know on previous visits to the manor. She had a charcoal brazier brought in to warm the room and wrapped herself in as many robes and quilts as she could find. But she could not sleep. She lit an oil lamp and settled down with The Tale of the Hollow Tree given her over a year ago by Akimi.

Strange, she thought, that of all the women she had met at Court her closest friend should be Akimi, Domei’s mistress. It had begun with the incident of the dog, and after that, as they talked, she had found she could share thoughts with Akimi as she had never been able to do with another woman. Although Taniko would never have said so, the Empress was a rather dull person, the other women of the Court even more so. Taniko’s career as a lady-in-waiting would have been unbearable without Akimi.

And now, thought Taniko, I am in flight from Domei with Akimi’s help, and comforting myself with a book Akimi gave me.

It was two years since her marriage to Horigawa. She found the prince as repulsive as ever, but his conjugal visits were, happily, infrequent. He seemed to want a wife mainly because a man in his position was expected to have one or more wives. While it must be bad karma that had afflicted her with a husband like Horigawa, she had learned not to consider herself uniquely unfortunate. Many other women had unappealing husbands. Perhaps most did. Rebirth as a woman was probably a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life.

Still, there was much pleasure in her life. Living in the Imperial Palace most of the time, serving the Empress, she felt close to the centre of things, where she had always wanted to be. The letters she translated for Horigawa brought her news of the fabled land of China. Horigawa’s close ties with the Takashi enabled her to watch Sogamori’s rise to power and also afforded occasional glimpses of the splendid Kiyosi. All in all, it was an exciting life for a young woman of fifteen.

There was, of course, the horrid possibility of her becoming pregnant by Horigawa. But she faithfully followed the precautions her mother had taught her, and anyway, she doubted that Horigawa’s seed had any life in it. Neither of his earlier wives, she learned, had ever conceived.

One thing was missing, though. In dreams and in waking reveries there would often appear a very tall young man with red hair and strange, grey eyes. In a way, the memory was sweet. It was good to know that once in her life she had held the strong body of such a man in her arms. But it was unbearably sad to think that she would never know such joy again.

If only she had fully given herself to Jebu. Horigawa had hardly seemed to notice or care whether she was a virgin. Now she might never know what it was like to have such a beautiful man inside her. And Jebu had seemed to know so much about a woman’s body. What exquisite pleasures he might have given her if she had permitted him the final intimacy. What marvellous memories she might have now.

When she thought of what she had lost, apparently for ever, tears filled her eyes.

The river that flowed through the hills above the manor was frozen, and she missed the sounds of the waterfall and the mill wheel, which usually furnished a background for her reading. Instead, from a distance rose the ringing sound of shovels biting into hard, cold earth. She and Horigawa and the others on the estate were simply waiting, waiting for the Muratomo. She wondered what he meant the pit for. Was he going to kill himself?

Reading by lamplight tired her eyes, and she blew out the lamp and tried to sleep. She lay awake on her futon, frightened, wondering what danger was coming their way, wondering what was happening in Heian Kyo. Was Jebu involved? Thinking of Jebu, she imagined herself in his arms. She thought about him and talked with him in her mind. Calmed by the fantasy, she fell asleep.

The lookout, half-dead from a freezing night spent in the hills, rode into the yard shortly after sunrise. A party of armed men was on the way. Horigawa emerged from his hall wearing an old black kimono. Summoning Taniko, he headed for the guard building. Behind the building, where it could not be seen from the main houses or the gateway to the estate, two men had dug a deep, square hole. Puzzled, Taniko watched as Horigawa ordered a ladder lowered into the pit and then climbed down.

Looking up from the pit at his bewildered servants, Horigawa said, “Any of you who reveals my whereabouts will wish you had never been born.” He glared up at Taniko. “Any of you.” Taniko felt her face grow hot with anger. The offensive old toad.

He lay down in the pit. Taniko peered over the edge. He had the bamboo tube in his hand, holding it to his mouth. He drew a white silk cloth from his kimono sleeve and spread it over his face.

“This is madness,” Taniko said.

“It is a device others have used. I am certain they will never find me. Fill the pit. Bury me.”

The pit was filled in long before the Muratomo riders came to the gate. Following Taniko’s directions, men spread gravel over the surface to hide the freshly turned earth. Only the tip of the breathing tube showed above the gravel, unnoticeable unless one were aware of it.

We have no way of knowing whether the other end is in his mouth or not, thought Taniko. He may be dying even now. She suppressed the thrill of hope that thought gave her. She wanted, as best she could, to do her duty to her husband.

The head of the guards came up to her. “A party of twenty-four samurai is approaching,” he said. “If they are Muratomo, shall we fight them?”

“That would be an utter waste,” said Taniko. “His Highness has hidden himself so that it will not be necessary for you to fight to protect him. Resistance would only tell them that he must be somewhere on the manor. Let them in, be hospitable. Send their leader to my quarters.”

Going to the women’s building, she ordered her maidservants to arrange the wall screens to create a spacious audience chamber. At one end of the room they set a screen of state whose curtains were decorated with a design of snow-covered mountains.

She heard horses and cries in the courtyard, and a moment later a warrior’s heavy tread on the steps of the women’s house. A young man’s voice spoke to her maidservants.

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