Shike – Day 55 of 306

“I know you’ve never met me before,” said Jebu, “but you can save my life if you will.” Hoping the horse would be strong, fast and obedient, Jebu scrambled on its bare back and dug his heels into its sides. The horse sprang forward and broke immediately into a gallop, as much from fright as from Jebu’s command. Jebu slapped its neck encouragingly and over the wind shouted, “Good! Good!” into its ear.

He looked over his shoulder. The lanterns were streaming towards the stable. He would have a long start on them, though. He would be all right if he could make it into the wooded hills north of Heian Kyo. He might even find Zinja monks who would shelter him.

It was foolhardy to ride this fast through unfamiliar country in darkness, but he had no choice. He was glad he’d had to fight his way out of Horigawa’s manor; it had taken his mind off the agony of leaving Taniko. But what was he leaving her to face? He could only hope that, whatever happened between her and Horigawa, she would live through it.

Sword drawn, Horigawa shoved aside the screen to Taniko’s bedchamber and strode in. Taniko had heard the commotion at the guards’ quarters and the men running across the compound. To quiet her pounding heart she insisted to herself that Jebu must have escaped.

Horigawa lit a lamp. His black eyes glowed at her in its reflected light.

She yawned and said, “You are discourteous to me, Your Highness, bursting in and waking me at this hour. I am not prepared to receive you properly.”

“It appears you have had other guests this night,” Horigawa rasped

“Why do you come here with sword drawn, my lord? Do you expect to find enemies here in the women’s quarters?”

“Yes. He might have fled to you. He killed Goshin and four other men.”

He was still alive! He had escaped. Wonderful news! Goshin was the ablest of Horigawa’s men. With him dead it was unlikely the others would be able to catch Jebu.

“The loss of Goshin, especially, is a great blow to me. It was he who rode to intercept me as I was returning here from Heian Kyo, and who persuaded me to speed my return to catch this deceitful monk.”

Taniko could not resist taunting Horigawa. “It occurs to me that none of your men would be dead if you had not insisted on ordering them to attack a Zinja monk. The monk would have come and gone quietly without harming anyone.”

Baring his teeth, Horigawa snarled, “You are to blame for those deaths. You knew who he was. You permitted him entry into this house under a false name.”

“Yes, I tried to protect him. He is the man who brought me safely to you from Kamakura. He fought and killed to protect me. Your men would have executed him on the spot if I had revealed his identity.”

“He fights for the Muratomo. It was your duty to order the death of any Muratomo supporter who entered this house.” He glowered at her. “Just what is your interest in this monk, that you were at such pains to protect him? Is he your lover?”

“My conduct has always been correct, Your Highness.”

“Has it? We shall see.” Suddenly Horigawa lunged at her and threw her down on the bed platform. She felt helpless, and in a momentary panic she pushed and kicked against him. He was trying to part her robes.

“Don’t fight me,” he gasped. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” He had exposed the lower part of her body now, and he was peering at her and probing at her with his nasty, skinny little fingers. How lucky that she had cleansed herself after being with Jebu. It was a practice her mother had taught her, explaining that it was a wise precaution for women who didn’t want to have too many babies. Men, said her mother, knew nothing about such things.

“No sign,” Horigawa muttered, releasing her and stepping back. “If I had caught you with this Jebu last night, I would surely have killed you. Perhaps I will kill you anyway.” He seized her hand. “He was here in your chamber yesterday talking to you. You and that carpenter, that cross-eyed fool. What were you talking about? Are you spies for the Muratomo?”

“If anyone in this house has secret dealings with the Muratomo, it is not I or the carpenter, my lord,” said Taniko pointedly. This cruel hypocrite would have killed Jebu as a Muratomo spy and was constantly howling in the councils of the Takashi for the deaths of all leaders of the Muratomo faction. But she knew that messages had passed between Horigawa and Muratomo no Hideyori, the young man who had come to kill him, who was still in exile at her father’s house in Kamakura.

Horigawa turned white at her words. “How dare you?” he sputtered. “You could cost me my life if anyone believed— I think I will kill you!” His fear turned to rage, and he seized her little finger and bent it back, grinding his teeth. The finger broke, and she screamed. Without thinking she brought her fist around and drove it into his small, round belly. Gasping, he threw down her hand and backed away from her, holding his middle.

“You little snake!” he screamed. “I should cut you to pieces. I would have every right to. But I still need your father’s goodwill. One day you will pay a high price for the indignities you have heaped upon me. And you will go on paying, for the rest of your life. That”—he pointed to the finger which she held tightly to ease the pain—“is only the beginning. Now I’m going to get that carpenter. He won’t get off as easily as you have. He will suffer more than you can imagine, until he tells me all he knows about that Muratomo spy.”

“He knows nothing. Spare him, please!”

“If his suffering causes you pain, then he shall surely suffer.”

“If you plan on hurting me again,” Taniko gasped, “you’d better bring your guards with you next time. You won’t get near me by yourself.”

“I have no wish to be near you,” said Horigawa. “I will have my revenge in due time.”

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