Shike – Day 86 of 306

For hours they cried together in each other’s arms.

In the evening the maids brought food to them. Taniko could not eat. She watched Atsue pick at the small slivers of fish with his chopsticks. In his green silk tunic and black trousers he looked like a replica of Kiyosi.

Why didn’t they chop me to bits with swords and be done with it? Taniko thought. How long could she feel this pain before she went mad?

“Homage to Amida Buddha.” Taniko started to recite the invocation. Atsue put down his chopsticks and joined her.

After the maid took away their dishes, Ryuichi pushed back the screen to Taniko’s chamber and peered in at them. His face was pale. In the dim corridor he looked like a goldfish trying to see up through the surface of a pond. Taniko, murmuring the homage to Buddha, looked back at him.

“You never went to Yasugi, Uncle.”

“Forgive me, Taniko-san. I remembered how you were when Horigawa brought you here. I couldn’t bear to see you like that again.”

“So, instead of telling me yourself, you mercifully allowed one of Sogamori’s lackeys to give me the news by accident.”

“Do not torment me, Taniko-san.”

“Ah, are you the one who is being tormented? I see. Well, don’t stand there in the doorway like a frightened peasant. Sit down with us.”

Ryuichi snapped his fingers at a maid. “Sake.” Still looking apologetically at Taniko, he sat down.

Taniko said, “Atsue, go to your bedchamber. I have something to discuss with your uncle.”

“Why can’t I hear? I’m the head of our family now.”

The words brought Taniko a renewed realization of her loss. She burst into a storm of weeping, while Ryuichi sat looking sadly at her. Atsue crept into her arms.

The maid brought hot sake. Taniko poured for Ryuichi and herself. “All right,” she said. “You will also have to decide what you want, Atsue-chan.” Atsue did not object to the term of endearment for a child. “Stay and listen.” The boy sat down again, facing his mother and his uncle. She turned to Ryuichi. “Sogamori has asked that I send the boy to him. He wants to take him from me and adopt him, make him a Takashi.”

Ryuichi nodded. “This afternoon I received a summons to the Rokuhara. Of course, it was worded as an invitation. What did you say to Sogamori’s secretary?”

“I refused. I want Atsue to stay with me.”

Ryuichi quickly drained another cup of sake. “You refused?”

“Yes. But Atsue must be the one to decide in the end.”

“Children do not decide their futures,” Ryuichi cut in. “Of course he will want to stay with his mother. But he has no idea of what he would lose. What can you give him that would compare with the station in life he would have as Sogamori’s son?”

“Kiyosi gave Sogamori other grandsons, and Kiyosi’s younger brothers still live,” said Taniko. “Why must Sogamori, who has so much, take this child from me?” Tears ran down her cheeks.

Ryuichi shrugged. “Aside from the late Kiyosi, Sogamori’s male descendants are a rather undistinguished lot. This boy, on the other hand, is a paragon. Perhaps it is because you and Kiyosi enjoyed some powerful bond in a former life. You must be aware that Atsue’s musicianship and his knowledge of the classics are remarkable. And his face—” Ryuichi sipped his sake and contemplated the boy. Atsue, his eyes downcast, flushed a deep scarlet. That’s one trait he gets from me, Taniko thought.

Ryuichi went on. “Anyone who knows anything about physiognomy can see Atsue has the face of one destined to hold a high place in the realm. In all respects, even at this young age, Atsue outshines Sogamori’s other descendants. That cannot have escaped you, Taniko. Be sure that Sogamori himself is well aware of it.”

Taniko turned to the boy. “Atsue-chan, what your uncle says is true. You can become an important member of the most powerful clan in the land. If you remain here, you’ll merely be a fatherless boy, part of a rather undistinguished provincial family.”

“I want to stay with you, Mother,” Atsue said instantly. “I love you, and you love me. I am afraid of Lord Sogamori. They say he is cruel and has a terrible temper. I don’t want to live in the Rokuhara. I don’t like the Rokuhara.”

“This is not childish prattle,” said Taniko. “The boy knows perfectly well what he is saying.”

“We dare not defy Lord Sogamori,” Ryuichi muttered.

“If Sogamori can take a child from us, he can take anything and everything from us.”

That thought made Ryuichi frown. “But there is nothing I can do. What can I say to Lord Sogamori at the Rokuhara tomorrow?”

“You are a samurai, Uncle, as much as he is. You can present the case to him and let him make what he will of it. When you go to the Rokuhara, tell Sogamori that the boy does not want to go and his mother does not want to send him.”

“Madness,” said Ryuichi.

“Uncle-san,” said Taniko, the tears coming again, “My champion is dead. You are the only defender I have left. If you won’t protect me, I am lost.”

Shaking his head, Ryuichi rose. “I will do what I can. Drink more sake. It will help you to sleep.”

It was a sweltering morning when Ryuichi went to the Rokuhara. Alone, sweating and trembling in his carriage, he fanned himself incessantly. Six armed, mounted men escorted him, but their presence did nothing to make him feel more secure. He was going, perhaps, to his death. What else could he expect if he disobeyed the command of Lord Sogamori, who could annihilate him as a careless sandal crushes an ant?

The Rokuhara was at once magnificent and frightening. Its three donjon towers, bedecked with proud red Takashi banners, dominated the surrounding district. Ryuichi saw them as soon as his carriage crossed the Gojo Bridge. The stone outer walls with their tile-roofed turrets were taller than those around the Imperial Palace. The walls girdled a spacious park bounded by four avenues. Three streams diverted from the Kamo River fed the moat, itself wide as a river, and ran through the park over beds of carefully chosen pebbles, beneath tiny ornamental bridges. Interior walls divided the grounds into parade fields, gardens and gravelled courts. The main buildings of the Rokuhara were imposing structures in the Chinese style, with red and green tiled roofs. Mixed in among these were a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine and many stables.

The Takashi headquarters was across the Kamo River, east of the original limits of Heian Kyo, outside the city’s walls. The land had been given to Sogamori’s grandfather after a victory over pirates on the Inland Sea. In those days the Takashi estate was out in the countryside. Over the years, with each new acquisition of power and wealth, the stronghold grew, as a coral reef rises out of the sea. At the same time the capital spread eastwards, and now the Rokuhara was surrounded by innumerable lesser buildings, like a black rock in a swiftly moving current.

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