Shike – Day 53 of 306

“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.

Chapter Sixteen

Jebu had deliberately chosen to sleep in a corner beside a crack in the screen. A stream of chill air came through the opening, but he ignored the discomfort, and as the long winter evening wore on he pushed the screen open by imperceptible degrees until there was a space about as wide as his hand. There were extra quilts scattered around the room for protection against the cold, and Jebu unobtrusively gathered several of these and carried them to his spot. The lamps burned out and one by one the men went to sleep.

When the room was dark Jebu bundled the quilts together on his futon so that it would look as if he were sleeping there. Then, glancing around the room to make sure he was not being watched, he pushed the screen open. On his hands and knees he slipped through and partially closed the screen again.

Looking around the darkened compound, he waited until he had spotted the spear-carrying guards walking their posts. Then, bent low, running silently on his bare feet and keeping to the shadows, he circled around the rear of the main house. Now he was in the garden. Neither moon nor stars shone tonight. He crept through the garden, making use of each small tree and shrub for cover.

At last he crouched by a corner of the women’s house. He reviewed Taniko’s directions as he searched the outer screens of the house for one that, as she had promised, was left partly ajar. When he found his opening, he thought of water and flowed up the steps and past the screen. Inside the women’s house it was totally dark. He stood perfectly still for a moment, listening to rustlings and soft breathing coming from all directions. There was a strong scent of flower petals. After a few moments his eyes adjusted to the darkness in the building and he began to see where the walls and screens were. If he made a mistake and entered the wrong room, the guards would be on him instantly. He counted the doorways and turnings, re-creating his mental map of the building.

Small fingers seized his arm. He stopped moving instantly, stifling the impulse to attack. He peered at his captor, putting his face close to the pale face that looked up at him. It was Taniko. He stood motionless for a long time, revelling in her closeness, the light touch of her breath on his cheek. He tangled his fingers in her unbound hair and, at last, pressed his face against hers. He let her lead him the rest of the way to her chamber.

Taniko’s form was a slightly darker shadow against the general darkness of the women’s house. Most of the fires were out, and there was a chill in the air. Together they mounted the sleeping platform, and Jebu lay down, his head resting on her single wooden pillow, while she drew curtains around them. She lay down beside him. The long years they had been apart, the danger of their coming together, roused him and made him eager to touch her, but for the moment he held himself back.

Taniko’s arm went around him, and her cheek brushed his. “I have longed for you every night since we parted,” she whispered. “The hope that I might spend another night with you has kept me alive. I have never forgotten Heian Kyo in the moonlight.”

“Nor I,” said Jebu. “I weep when I think of what you must be suffering.” His fingertips stroked the nape of her neck.

Taniko drew back from him a little. Even in the almost total darkness he could see the glitter of intelligence in her eyes. “I will live. And I will learn. And some day, perhaps, I will use the knowledge somehow. I am learning what power is, and how men struggle for it.”

“Taniko. Run away with me tonight. We won’t stop running till we reach Hokkaido. We’ll live on a farm on a mountainside unknown to everyone.”

“Do you really think you could give up being a Zinja and become a farmer?” she whispered. “I know I could not give up the world I am discovering, even though every day of my marriage to Horigawa is torture. I will escape Horigawa somehow, but it will not be to hide in the north.”

Jebu felt his eyes grow hot and wet. Her life was so wretched that she was deceiving herself with wild dreams. But he knew she would remain firm about not running away with him. Tonight was all they would have. He put his hand under her robes, found her breast and held it gently, feeling the nipple tickle the palm of his hand. He made himself touch her as lightly as autumn leaves fall on a forest floor, even though he was raging inside to spring upon her as a tiger seizes a deer. He waited until she had warmed to him, till the insistence of her movements told him her eagerness matched his. Then he pressed himself upon her and she drew him in. Their bodies were fully united for the first time. In total silence they climbed a mountain of pleasure together, leaped together from the summit, and drifted down together like falling snow.

Jebu felt a pang of regret that it should be over so quickly. But he held her, his hands exploring her body, and he discovered that their union was not by any means over. This time he silently guided her into the position favoured by the Zinja, she sitting on his crossed legs with her own legs locked behind his back. This time there was a whole mountain range of pleasure for her, while his own peak took exquisitely long to reach.

For most of the night they lay together, sometimes talking in whispers, sometimes joining their bodies. Jebu discovered energy and desire in himself surpassing all previous experience.

At last Taniko said, “I heard a bird call. It will be dawn soon. You must go now while the night still protects us.”

“I would stop the sun from rising if I could.”

“That is not possible, Jebu. Least of all in the Sunrise Land.” She laughed softly. “You will live, and I will live, and we will do what we must, and other nights like this will be ours again.”

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