Shike – Day 9 of 306

Jebu pressed his lips together to hold back an angry answer. Like all boors, Bokuden imagined that the Zinja hoarded vast wealth in the dozen temples they had scattered over the islands. But Bokuden was undoubtedly too cowardly to make any move against the Zinja. Surely he knew that those who offended the Order never lived long. In a casual-seeming gesture Jebu touched the Willow Tree patch on his chest. Bokuden looked into his eyes and swallowed.

“Armed monks are a plague on the country,” he muttered.

“But they can make themselves useful, my lord,” said Jebu. “If anything happens to your daughter, I shall certainly die. Because whoever would harm her must kill me first.”

“I hope you live up to your brave words, monk. You will spend twenty days on the road with my daughter, who will have only two maidservants with her. Even if you are rather odd-looking, you are young, and subject to a young man’s passions. What guarantee do I have that my Taniko will arrive in Heian Kyo—” Bokuden hesitated “—intact?”

“You are your own best guarantee of that, Lord Bokuden.” Bokuden frowned and pulled nervously at his moustache. “What do you mean?”

“Lord Bokuden would hardly raise a daughter so foolish as to give her virginity to a poor monk on the eve of her wedding to a prince of the Imperial Court.”

“You are, perhaps, too clever, monk. Go now. My servant will show you where you may eat and sleep.”

Jebu laughed to himself as he followed Bokuden’s servant out of the courtyard.

Jebu was awake long before sunrise. He washed in a bucket of cold water and passed an hour in seated meditation in a corner of the yard. He made his mind blank by counting his exhalations up to ten, then starting over again. As the edge of the sun appeared at the top of the bamboo palisade that protected the Shima grounds, Jebu stood up and began his calisthenics, a series of movements from position to position that looked like—and in fact, was—a vigorous, complicated dance. Next he drew his sword and performed his sword drill.

Now he could hear the sounds of the household waking up. An attendant in a grey cloak took him to the stable and showed him the horse Bokuden had chosen for him. Jebu examined it closely. It was a brown stallion with no outstandingly good qualities, a little past his prime, but with no serious defects either. He was called Hollyhock. Jebu was to return Hollyhock to the Shima town house in Heian Kyo. The selection of Hollyhock as his mount showed typical Shima parsimony, Jebu thought.

Lady Taniko’s party was beginning to gather. Two porters loaded large, heavy packs on the backs of two ancient, wheezing mares. Those jades would be lucky if they survived all the way to Heian Kyo. Servants in grey robes led three more horses out of the stable. Jebu went and fetched Hollyhock. He stood beside the brown stallion, holding his reins. The maidservants, wrapped in identical peach travelling cloaks, appeared on the porch of the women’s house. They looked at Jebu, whispered together and giggled.

Apparently the plan was for the women to travel on horseback. No self-respecting lady of Heian Kyo would ever ride in anything but an ox-drawn carriage. Of course, no lady of Heian Kyo would ever venture more than a few miles outside the walls of the capital. It was a good thing the Shima ladies, like most samurai women, were able to ride horseback. A carriage could not negotiate the whole Tokaido Road from Kamakura to the capital.

At last the Lady Taniko came out on the porch of the northern building, the women’s house, followed by a group of children and a blubbering, middle-aged woman, doubtless her mother. Lord Bokuden emerged with stately pride from the central building and joined his family on the porch of the women’s house. All bowed low to him.

Jebu studied the girl he would be escorting half-way across Honshu. She wore a lavender travelling cloak over a dark red trouser skirt. She had a fine, pale complexion, a tiny, rounded nose, a wide mouth and a pointed chin. Her gaze swung round to Jebu, and he felt as if the claws of a cat had raked his face. It was a surprisingly mature, candid look for a pretty thirteen-year-old girl. There was something ruthless, even cruel, in Taniko’s eyes. Her look raised Jebu’s hackles and excited him all at once. This baby chick could grow up to be a dragon.

“Is that gangling, ugly monk to be my sole escort?” Her voice was light and slightly metallic.

Bokuden said, “It is well known that one Zinja is the equal of ten samurai.”

“If I know my family, it is more likely that ten Zinja are the equal in price of one samurai.”

“I would not send you with this monk if I were not sure you were absolutely safe.”

“It might serve your purpose better if I were raped and murdered by a gang of bandits on the way to Heian Kyo. Then you would have made the gesture of offering your daughter to the elderly and influential Prince Horigawa and be saved the expense of a wedding.”

Jebu chuckled to himself, amused at the way she bore down on the words “elderly” and “influential.” By the Willow Tree, the girl was shrewd. She might even be right. Perhaps the two of them were both being thrown to the sharks by this son of pirates.

Bokuden’s seamed face was white with anger. “Keep up this disrespect towards your father before his household, and there will be no journey to Heian Kyo and no wedding. You will spend the rest of your life in a convent telling your troubles to the compassionate Buddha.”

Taniko fell silent, her cheeks burning red. She has gone as far as she dares go in baiting her contemptible father, Jebu thought. Many times further than most daughters would have the courage to go. He liked her. She was brave. She was intelligent. She was witty. Indeed, she was destined to be a dragon, quite a beautiful one.

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