Shike – Day 37 of 306

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.

A moment later the samurai leader strode into Taniko’s chamber on stockinged feet. He made a low bow. “Am I in the presence of Lady Shima no Taniko, wife of Prince Sasaki no Horigawa?”

The blinds and screens around the room were pulled tight to keep out the winter air, and little light came into the room from outside. Taniko had arranged the lamps so that the light was on the intruder, leaving her screen and herself in the shadows. Through tiny apertures between the screen’s hangings she studied the Muratomo leader. In the palace, on the Empress’s business, it was occasionally permissible for her to be seen by men. In her own home, and especially meeting with an invader, she was required to shield herself behind a screen of state.

The samurai was a boy. His face was smooth. His forehead, surmounted by the samurai topknot, was high. When he was fully grown, she thought, his face would be strong. As yet it had a boy’s smoothness.

“I do not know who you are,” said Taniko, “but you appear by your dress and bearing to be a well-born warrior. Your arrival is sudden and surprising to us, but we will make you welcome as best we can.”

His eyes were alert, suspicious, unfriendly.

“I am Muratomo no Hideyori, son of Muratomo no Domei, captain of the palace guards and chieftain a the Muratomo clan. I have come at my father’s order, seeking His Highness, your husband.”

To kill him, thought Taniko. She said, “The prince would certainly wish to meet you, were he here. Alas, he left us last night. His destination, he said, was a temple on the northern shore of Lake Biwa.”

“He began a journey at night?”

“So must you have, to reach Daidoji from the capital by morning. In His Highness’s case, a diviner warned him that north would be an unlucky direction for him today.” The nobility of Heian Kyo frequently planned their movements on the basis of lucky and unlucky directions.

“Staying at home might have been unlucky for him as well,” said Hideyori. “In spite of what you tell me, I feel I must seek the prince here at Daidoji, in the hope that I may present him with my father’s greetings. Do I have your permission to look for him?”

“Of course, Hideyori-san,” said Taniko. “You will have every assistance from His Highness’s servants.”

Hideyori bowed, turned and left her. He had his father’s commanding manner and good looks, she thought. A few moments later she heard his voice shouting orders. She moved two lamps closer to where she sat, settled down again with The Tale of the Hollow Tree, and waited, wondering what it must be like for Horigawa in his pit and how long he could live under the weight of all that earth. It did not matter that she loathed the man. He was her husband, and it was her duty to do everything in her power to preserve his life.

After a time Hideyori returned. Taniko quickly withdrew behind her screen. “You are correct, my lady. Prince Horigawa appears to be gone. If you will permit me now to search the women’s house, I will accept what you’ve said, that Prince Horigawa is not here, and I will leave you in peace.”

“Surely you would not distress my ladies by searching their quarters. Prince Horigawa is a man of noble birth. He would not hide among women.”

The young Muratomo looked at her gravely through the screen. “You are of a samurai family, my lady. Do you give me your word as a samurai that Prince Horigawa is not here?”

“He is not in the women’s quarters. You have my word.”

“Then I will leave your ladies undisturbed if you will grant me one favour.”

“What is that?”

“I have heard that the wife of Prince Horigawa is one of the most beautiful women in the capital. I would like to see for myself. Come out from behind that screen and let me look at you. Then I will go.”

He was bold, for one so young. She studied him through the screen. His eyes were a fathomless black. He was staring back, trying to see past the hangings, but his expression was one of unabashed interest, with nothing corrupt, nothing cruel about it. It was not the look she had seen in Sogamori’s eyes when Lady Akimi was mentioned, or for that matter when the Takashi chieftain looked at her. There was something straightforward and likeable about the Muratomo men.

“Very well.” Daintily, drawing her kimono, patterned with red flowers, more closely about her, and taking an ivory fan from her sleeve and opening it, she stepped out from behind the screen and stood before Hideyori. She stood partially turned away from him with her eyes downcast. She held her fan so as not to hide her face, but to shield and reveal it at the same time.

There was a very long silence. At last, Taniko could stand it no longer. She looked up and allowed her eyes to meet his. He sighed. “Well?” she said with a touch of impatience.

Young Hideyori bowed. “They lied, those who said you were one of the most beautiful women in the capital. There is none more beautiful than you.”

“Your mother is more beautiful than I am.”

“My mother?”

“Yes. Lady Akimi is a good friend of mine.”

Hideyori’s face hardened, as if turned to stone. “Lady Akimi is not my mother.”

Taniko turned away, mortified by her mistake. Hideyori must be Domei’s son by one of his official wives. She knew that Akimi had a young son by Domei and had simply assumed that this must be he.

“Please forgive me. My error was stupid beyond belief. I meant no offence.”

Hideyori shrugged. “No doubt I have offended you greatly by coming here. Forgive me for bringing trouble to your house. May the kami show favour to you, my lady. I take my leave of you now.” He bowed again and was gone.

What a marvellous young man, she thought. When there are men in the world like him and Kiyosi and Jebu, why must I be married to Horigawa? Of course, this one is a bit young, even for me. But those black, penetrating eyes.

She lit a one-hour stick of incense. In an hour Hideyori and his party would be far away. It would be time to dig up old Squint-Eyes, if he were still alive.

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