Shike – Day 52 of 306

“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.”

“He is cold and ugly and cruel. Let us not speak of him. Why are you travelling under a false name? Are you really working for the Muratomo?”

“Yes. The cause of the White Dragon is collapsing, but the Order has commanded me to stay with it.”

“It is unfortunate that you said you were going to Sogamori,” Taniko said. “He is well known in this house. For you to claim a connection with him raises suspicion. Horigawa is with Sogamori now.”

At that moment Jebu heard bare feet on the wooden floor behind him. He whirled.

“Shiké!” It was Moko, scuttling towards them and bowing from across the room.

“You do not know him, Moko!” Taniko snapped from behind her screen. “He is dead if they find out who he really is.”

Moko stopped where he was, his face pale. He threw himself down on his knees.

“Forgive me, mistress. Forgive me, shiké. Moko is so stupid—” Jebu smiled and patted him on the back.

“You can speak to him, but try to seem as if you are speaking to me,” said Taniko. “Supposedly I am giving you instructions about the new guard tower.”

Moko said, “I am so happy to see you, shiké. I have missed you so much. But if you want to do the sensible thing you will run out of this room, through the garden and over the wall and across the rice paddies and not stop until you reach the woods. These guards will not rest until they kill you.”

“They have no reason to kill me.”

“These are men who need no reason to kill.”

“I will not leave here—not yet.”

“I understand, shiké.” Moko nodded towards Taniko, behind her screen. “She is the reason I stay in this hellhole with Horigawa and his bandits.”

“We can safely talk no longer,” said Taniko. “Go now, Moko.” Moko bowed first to Taniko, then to Jebu. “My lady. Shiké.” He hurried away.

Taniko said, “You will have to leave me now. But I hope you can remember the way to my bedchamber. You will come here tonight.” The words were more a demand than a request. Through a small opening at the top of the screen Jebu could see brown eyes looking into his.

“You must be silent as only a Zinja can be. I am watched constantly.”

Smiling, Jebu stood and bowed. “As my lady commands.” He turned and left the room, once again imprinting on his mind a picture of the corridors through which he passed.

Outside the women’s quarters, Jebu found himself in the garden. He wished for brush and ink so that he might bring a poem to her tonight. The thought of the night to come filled him with a powerful yearning. Men whose constant companion was death needed women in a way most men couldn’t understand, he thought. He wondered what Prince Horigawa had been doing to her. The thought that Horigawa might have hurt her filled him with rage. He hoped he could be tender enough with Taniko to wash away all the anguish she might have suffered.

The winter sky was empty and grey. The garden seemed bare and sad. How could a man such as Horigawa have a garden that would look anything but sad? Jebu stood awhile, letting pebbles drop through his fingers into the brook, then turned to leave.

The unseen sun was setting and the early winter evening was coming on, the empty grey sky turning to a cold black. Jebu walked through the main yard of the estate just as the gate was being shut for the night. He went into the building that housed the manor’s guards.

The men lounging in the guard room eyed him closely. He saw his bow and arrows and his two swords—his own Zinja sword and the sword he had taken from the samurai who tried to kill him—hanging on the wall where all the other weapons had been gathered. He asked one of the men where he could get something to eat, and provisions for his departure in the morning.

“Just go to the kitchen and tell them you’re a guest of the manor. There are so many people here, they’re always cooking. If you have any trouble, just tell them you’re a friend of Lady Taniko.”

“Thank you.” Jebu smiled at the man and left. In the kitchen a cook served him a meal of bean paste, rice, soup, cucumbers and slices of fish. The man seemed used to cooking for military men and transients, Jebu noted. With practised swiftness the cook packed a box with enough provisions for a two-day journey.

“That’s more than enough to get you to Heian Kyo, even if you travel slowly,” he said.

Back in the barracks, Jebu settled down in a corner to meditate. He wanted very much to take his weapons from the wall, but knowing the guards probably had orders to stop him, he resisted the urge. He looked around for Goshin, but did not see him.

“Hey, monk!” It was the man who had directed him to the kitchen. “Want to share some of our warmth with us?” He pointed to a jar of sake being heated over a brazier.

“Monks don’t drink sake, fool,” one of the other men said.

“Thank you,” said Jebu. “I’m not used to sake. I’m afraid it would go to my head.”

The men talking around the brazier smiled and nodded to Jebu and went back to talking among themselves. Jebu sat cross-legged against the wall and closed his eyes. With Goshin gone, the atmosphere seemed much more friendly. One could even walk into this room and be unable to tell whether the samurai here fought for the Takashi or the Muratomo.

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