Shike – Day 46 of 306

Taniko felt tears fill her own eyes to overflowing. She pressed Akimi’s hand in both her own. “I have no influence whatever with my husband, dear Akimi-san. But I will do what I can.”

Akimi looked up. Weeping had destroyed her painted face. “Believe me, Taniko-san, I will do anything—anything at all—to save the life of my son.”

The scowling, florid face of Sogamori appeared in Taniko’s mind. She recalled his look of frustrated lust when his son, Kiyosi, had ridiculed him for attempting to woo Akimi. Sogamori, she thought, might do anything—anything at all—to have Akimi.

“I believe you can win Sogamori over,” Taniko said, “if you are willing to pay the price. I can say no more now. Don’t give up hope. I’ll send word to you when the moment seems right.”

On the fifteenth day of the Fifth Month of the Year of the Horse, Horigawa held a winding water banquet. Such affairs were a tradition that went back centuries. Horigawa chose the evening of the full moon, so that the silver disk would be reflected in the stream that wound through his garden. For seven days before the banquet Taniko resided at Horigawa’s house to help oversee preparations.

She sent Moko to Akimi with a special message. The chances that Horigawa would find out what she was doing were all too good, she realized. If he did find out, he would undoubtedly punish her severely. But Akimi had lost nearly everything. To lose her son would kill her. Something inside Taniko—perhaps it was what Jebu called the Self—would not let her abandon her friend.

The evening of the banquet, the landscaped gardens around Prince Horigawa’s mansion were bright with lanterns. Carriages pulled by oxen bedecked with ribbons and flowers rolled up before the main gateway. Servants ushered each guest to a designated place along the twisting banks of the stream. To enhance the beauty of his artificial brook Horigawa had added a few bridges, ponds and small waterfalls, as well as a number of new plants along its edges.

The guest of honour was Sogamori. He arrived last of all and was seated approximately at mid-point along the stream’s course, so that he need be neither the first nor the last to recite a poem. His son, Kiyosi, who had already arrived, was seated a few paces downstream from his father. The other guests included courtiers, ministers and high-ranking Takashi.

Unknown to Horigawa, one other person was present. Lady Akimi had left her carriage some distance from the Shima mansion and, cloaked and hooded, had come the rest of the way on foot. Taniko let her in by a side gate.

Taniko was painfully aware of the risks of her plan. She might have misjudged Sogamori. Meeting Akimi at this banquet could have the opposite effect on him from what she intended. He might even be provoked to take action against the boy Yukio and against Akimi as well. As for Horigawa, even if the plan were successful, only the kami knew what that cruel and bloodthirsty man might do. Taniko sent Akimi to a vacant chamber in the women’s pavilion, promising to come for her at an opportune time.

When the guests were seated, Horigawa gestured to Taniko, who filled a round-bottomed wine cup with hot sake and set it adrift at the head of the stream. As host, Horigawa began the recitation of poetry by picking up the cup, sipping from it and declaiming:

Straw dogs turn to ash
Under the Red Dragon’s breath.

There was laughter and applause. No one doubted that the sacrificial straw dogs referred to the defeated Muratomo. From some courtiers, however, Taniko heard a murmur of distaste. For hundreds of years the best people of the capital had looked on fighting and bloodshed as activities fit only for savage beasts, certainly nothing to write poetry about.

The next guest along the stream bank took the cup out of the water, sipped the sake and said:

That pale cloud in flight—White smoke or a dragon’s tail?

Most of the guests laughed, Sogamori loudest of all. Taniko looked beyond him at the handsome Kiyosi, who was staring pensively into the stream.

Horigawa had set the tone for the banquet, and most of the guests followed with poems on the martial theme, many of them ancient Chinese ballads of war. A few who disapproved recited poetry on subjects more traditional for a winding water banquet: flowers, the seasons, the moon. Whenever this happened, Taniko noticed, Sogamori glowered at the offender. Clearly, he wanted to celebrate his triumph.

After one elderly doctor of literature had recited, in a stately, old-fashioned style of declamation, a poem about the moon’s reflection on the water, Sogamori suddenly rose. As the noble next to the doctor of literature drank and began to recite, Sogamori quietly stepped away from the stream and drew a small, dark object shaped like a cherry from his sleeve. He went over to a lamp and set fire to the stem of the cherry, then tossed it within a few feet of the learned doctor.

There was a noise like a thunderclap and a blinding flash. The old scholar leaped to his feet and nearly fell into the stream. Taniko was shocked and frightened. A harsh, powerful stench filled the garden. A puff of smoke drifted past the dwarf pine trees. It was as if Sogamori had unleashed an ugly, vicious demon.

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