Shike – Day 48 of 306

Taniko offered Sogamori an orange slice skewered on a sliver of wood. The heavyset Takashi chieftain smiled broadly at her. Taniko could see he must have been a very handsome man twenty years ago.

Smacking his lips after the orange slice, Sogamori said, “What have those executions to do with this question?”

“The Takashi are already called butchers,” Kiyosi said. “It is your advice that has got us that name, Prince Horigawa.” The young man’s dark eyes blazed at the prince. “Do you want us to be known as child murderers, too?”

“Nits make lice,” Horigawa repeated. “Let Hideyori and Yukio live, and they will trouble the Takashi for years to come. Kill them now, and they will be forgotten tomorrow. To kill a grown man sometimes takes a war. To snuff out the life of a child is quite easy.” He snapped his fingers.

Her heart pounding, Taniko chose that moment, when Kiyosi and Horigawa were glaring at each other, to reach out, squeeze Sogamori’s hand and place in it a slip of green-tinted paper, folded, with twisted ends. On it Akimi had written:

All must surrender
To the Red Dragon’s power
And none disobey.
In the forest he may work
His will on her whom he meets.

The meaning should be plain enough, Taniko thought.

When he noticed the paper in his hand, Sogamori turned to look at her, startled. Then his round face beamed knowingly.

Taniko hid behind her fan, letting him see the painting on it. It was unmistakably a representation of the shrine of the Beautiful Island Princess on Itsukushima, built and maintained by the Takashi family. Sogamori and Kiyosi had been on pilgrimage to that shrine when Domei raised his insurrection. Taniko stood, bowed to the three men and withdrew into the shadows. She hoped Horigawa was too intent on his argument to notice her departure.

When she was among the trees on the edge of the garden a hand caught her arm. It was Akimi. Taniko looked back over her shoulder. Sogamori was reading the poem, holding it so Horigawa and Kiyosi could not see it. He slipped it into his sleeve and stood up. Squinting into the shadows, he tried to see Taniko.

Taniko handed her fan to Akimi and withdrew behind a tall stand of bamboo. Sogamori said something to Horigawa and Kiyosi that made them both laugh. He stretched and strolled towards the trees with an elaborate show of casualness.

Holding the fan before her face, Akimi stepped into Sogamori’s path. As he approached her, she drew him deeper into the darkness.

“The painting on your fan shows exquisite taste, dear lady,” he said, reaching out for her.

“Thank you, my lord,” said Akimi with a light laugh.

“You do not sound like—I must see you,” said Sogamori, taking Akimi’s wrist and pulling the fan away from her face. He gasped when he recognized her.

“Is this some trick?”

“You may call it so if you wish, my lord. It was my poem that my friend Lady Taniko gave you. It was I who wished to meet you here.”

Still holding Akimi’s wrist, Sogamori looked down at her. “I was struck by your radiant beauty the first time I saw you at Court. I have never dared hope. You were always his. How can you come to me now, when it was I who destroyed him?”

“A woman can admire more than one man, my lord. The enmities of men do not mean so much to women. Because of him, I could never approach you. Now he is gone, and nothing stands between us, if you still deign to look upon me.”

“You will be mine, then?” Sogamori was fairly panting.

Taniko felt tears burn her eyes as she thought of what her friend was sacrificing.

“My lord, I fear his angry ghost. But there is a way that we can set his spirit at rest. Then I can give myself to you fully.”

“What is that?”

“That you promise to spare his children.”

A few days later Horigawa came to the Shima mansion in a rage. Alone with Taniko, he seized her arm and twisted it violently until she pulled away from him.

“I have done nothing to deserve this treatment, Your Highness.”

“Lord Sogamori has announced that he will spare the lives of the two Muratomo brats. An example of samurai benevolence, he calls it. The tenderness of a warrior. As if the samurai could know anything of ethics. It is like dressing a monkey in a courtier’s robes. It is his lust for Lady Akimi that drives him to this foolishness. She beds with him now. This is your doing. Akimi came to visit you before my banquet. She met Sogamori at the banquet, even though she was not invited. I detect your hand in all this, my clever young lady of Kamakura.” He advanced on her, his eyes narrowed to slits, his nostrils flaring, his face pale.

Taniko bowed her head. “As Your Highness says, I am just a child from the provinces. How could I possibly have any influence in these high matters?”

Horigawa turned from her, pacing the room. “That young dog who came to kill me at Daidoji—he is to live. In the care of your father. Your father! After Domei was defeated he disappeared, and when he reappears it is in Kamakura, at your father’s house.”

“Do you think I sent him to my father, Your Highness? There is no way I could have done that. Doubtless, the young Muratomo was passing through Kamakura, and my father, being a loyal supporter of the Takashi, stopped him and held him.”

“Oh, doubtless, doubtless. How do I know what passed between the two of you while I lay buried alive? When I think of the hours I spent under all that weight of dirt-well, you shall see what it is like to be buried alive.” He stared at her with such hatred that Taniko, despite her contempt for him, was terrified.

“What do you mean?”

“You will not remain in Heian Kyo to thwart me again. As your husband I command you to move to my house at Daidoji. You will live there. I am not free to deal with you as I truly wish, because I need the support of your family. But I will keep you from tampering with my affairs. Prepare yourself. I expect you to be ready to move by tomorrow morning.”

Oh, merciful Buddha, no, thought Taniko. He takes from me the only thing that makes life bearable. To leave the capital, to go into exile, no. If I can’t be here at the centre of things he might as well kill me. I’ll die there at Daidoji, of grief and boredom.

She knew it was useless to plead with him. Any sign that she was suffering would please him and confirm him in his decision. Two women had virtually thrown their lives away to save Akimi’s son, Yukio. She could only hope he would grow up to be worth it.

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