Shike – Day 51 of 306

“All right,” said Goshin. “There he is, my lady. Do you recognize him?”

Jebu turned from the guard tower to the veranda of the manor house. Through the blinds he could just make out a shadowy figure.

Then he heard a light voice, like the chiming of temple bells. “I have seen this monk visit my father. Who could forget that hideous red hair?”

Jebu felt himself go cold and then hot. He wanted to laugh and call out to Taniko, run up the steps, push his way into the manor house and put his arms around her. He forced himself to look coldly in the direction of her voice as if he had never seen her before. He reminded himself that he was a monk named Yoshizo.

She went on, “Of course, he could know my father and still be working for the Muratomo. It is my father’s custom to give his messengers a password to identify themselves to any members of the Shima family they might meet. Did Lord Bokuden give you such a word, monk?”

Jebu played along. “He did, my lady, but it is for your ears alone. I must take the liberty of whispering it to you.”

“Come up, close to these blinds, then,” came the icy voice.

“Careful, my lady,” said the frog-faced Goshin. “He might just be trying to get close enough to you to seize you as a hostage.”

“Goshin, I command you now, if he takes me hostage you are to kill both of us immediately.” She paused significantly. “I’m quite sure Prince Horigawa would want it that way.”

Jebu slowly and carefully laid his bow and arrows and his two swords on the raked earth of the courtyard.

“It would be rude of me to approach you armed, my lady,” he said. Then he looked coldly at the guards. “But let no one touch my weapons.”

“A Zinja is armed even when empty-handed,” a guard muttered.

Jebu strode forward, climbed the steps and stood beside the screen that hid Taniko. A faint scent of lilac came to him, and his head reeled. He feared the pounding of his heart must be visible to all. Goshin stood close to him, and Jebu gave him the same hard stare he had given the guards.

“This man is not authorized to hear the word,” he said.

“Goshin?” said Taniko.

Grunting angrily, Goshin took a few steps away from Jebu. He drew his sword and stood poised to spring.

Leaning towards the screen until his lips were almost touching it, and looking into the bright eyes he glimpsed in the shadows beyond the screen, Jebu whispered, “The waterfowl is still snared in the lilac branch.” He heard a faint sigh from within.

“Goshin,” Taniko called, “this monk has given the correct password. He is a genuine messenger from my father. Since he is travelling to Minister Sogamori, he will see my husband. I have a message for my husband which I will give this monk.”

Goshin glowered. “My lady, I still don’t trust him. There are many ways he could have learned this password. And there is the business of the samurai equipment he was carrying.”

Jebu turned to Goshin. “You are quite correct. Now that I have been identified as, I hope, a friend of this house, I can admit that I did steal the horse. Not far from here a party of Muratomo samurai was riding through the forest. I was with a Takashi band waiting in ambush. One of the enemy tried to escape on his horse. I jumped from a tree, and took his horse away from him. He seemed so unhappy about losing his horse that I killed him to spare him further grief.”

Taniko greeted this story with her tinkling laughter, and soon all the servants and guards near by joined in. Only Goshin stood unsmiling, his bulging eyes filled with anger.

“Did you not already have a horse?” he demanded.

Jebu laughed. “Clearly you do not know Lord Shima no Bokuden, or you would not have asked that question. Lord Bokuden is not the most generous of employers. He felt my legs were strong enough to take me to Heian Kyo.”

Behind the screen Taniko laughed again.

Goshin broke in. “You do not behave as Prince Horigawa would want you to, my lady. You are too familiar with this monk.”

“Be silent, Goshin!” Taniko snapped. “My husband did not appoint you to teach me manners. I am mistress of this house, and in my husband’s absence I rule here. You are dismissed. Monk, wait there. A maid will take you to my chamber when I am ready to receive you.”

“May I collect my weapons, my lady?” Jebu asked.

Goshin said, “I will keep them for you, monk. You don’t need weapons here, since you are such a great friend of this house. Ask for them when you are ready to leave.”

Reluctant to entrust his bow and arrows and his swords to this man, Jebu saw that he had no choice. He bowed. “Thank you.”

Shortly afterwards, a maid led Jebu to the women’s quarters and down a series of twisting corridors. As he had long ago been taught to do on entering a strange house, Jebu constructed and committed to memory a mental map of everything he could see.

At last he entered a large, dim room with a sleeping platform in the centre. On the platform was a screen of state whose curtains were painted to depict snow-covered mountains. Overcome with excitement, Jebu strode straight for the screen, meaning to step around it and see Taniko.

“Stop,” she called from behind the curtain in a warning tone. Of course, Jebu thought, they must be under surveillance. He had allowed himself to be carried away by emotion, just the thing a Zinja was not supposed to do.

In a low voice Taniko went on, “We can be watched, but if we speak softly enough we cannot be heard. Sit down and talk to me. I am so happy to see you, my heart is like a butterfly just burst from its cocoon.”

“When we parted I told myself I must never expect to meet you again,” said Jebu. “Yet I knew I would think of you for the rest of my life. Not a day has gone by that I have not remembered that night on Mount Higashi overlooking the lights of Heian Kyo.”

“I have not forgotten either. There has been nothing in my marriage to replace the memory of that night. I have known nothing but horror and sorrow and ugliness since we parted.”

Jebu felt as if a hand were crushing his heart. “How sorry I am to hear that. It would be like death to know that you had forgotten me, but I would accept it if it meant you had found happiness. We should have run away together instead of letting you go to that man. Tell me about the prince.”

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