Shike – Day 90 of 306

Taniko remained kneeling with her arms around Atsue. Ryuichi held out his hands to her.

“Please, Taniko. Do not disgrace us like this.”

“It is you who disgrace yourself, Uncle.”

“Take the boy,” Horigawa snapped at the samurai.

The elder of the two men stepped forward and stood over Taniko. “Excuse me, my lady. Will you give us the boy?”

“I’m sorry,” said Taniko, “but I cannot do that.”

“We know you, my lady. It was you who helped one of our comrades into the beyond. You are held in great esteem by all samurai. But we must obey orders. Do not force us to shame you.”

Taniko closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Forgive me.” She tightened her grip on Atsue.

“It is you who must forgive us, my lady.” The samurai bent over and took hold of her arms. Atsue screamed. Ryuichi stood moaning and wringing his hands.

Suddenly Taniko let go of Atsue and leaped at the younger of the two samurai, grabbing for his sword. She had it half-way out of its scabbard when the samurai’s open hand smashed down on the side of her head. She fell, stunned, unable to move.

“She must have been a warrior in a former life,” said the older samurai.

“Mother!” Atsue cried. Taniko opened her eyes and saw her son in the grip of the younger samurai. She held out her arms to him and he struggled to free himself.

“Get the boy out of here,” Horigawa said. The man dragged Atsue from the room.

Shutting Atsue’s screams out of her mind, Taniko turned to the older samurai. She had to speak very slowly to keep the sobs from breaking through.

“Before you leave, ask the servants to give you his flute, koto and samisen and take them with you to the Rokuhara. The flute, Little Branch, is a Takashi family heirloom given Atsue by his father. The boy’s practice should not be interrupted. He is a very fine musician.” She remembered years ago when Lady Akimi had said of Domei’s son, Yukio, “His flute-playing is beautiful to hear.” Yukio, because of whom Kiyosi was now dead. Yukio, whose life she had helped save.

Until this moment that had not occurred to her. Now the realization of it stunned her.

“Homage to Amida Buddha,” she whispered. Only the Lord of Boundless Light could understand the tangled karma that made her somehow responsible for Kiyosi’s death.

Taniko stood, turning to Horigawa. “Take me and do what you will.”

Walking with the small steps of a lady, holding her back very straight, Taniko left the weeping family of Shima Ryuichi. She realized that she might never see any of them again, but she walked silently past them without saying goodbye. Her family had failed her once too often.

Horigawa commanded one of the Takashi samurai to get into the carriage with himself and Taniko. As they trundled through the streets of Heian Kyo, Taniko said, “Will you always have a guard present when you are with me, Your Highness?”

Horigawa smiled at her, a smile full of hatred. “You cannot possibly imagine the fate I have in mind for you. It will be most interesting to see how a delicate, well-bred lady, used to life in the capital, withstands the rigours of a journey to China.”

Taniko stared at Horigawa, open-mouthed. China? But if Yukio had fled to China, as she had heard, Jebu might have gone there, too. It was almost impossible to believe this was not some strange dream.

“Yes, my dear, China,” Horigawa said. “But that is only to be the beginning of your journey. Before you come to the end you will find yourself in hell.”

She was treated rather like a guest at Horigawa’s house. The women’s building had been unused for some time. It was dirty, and the roof leaked. But Horigawa’s servants, evidently on orders from the prince, worked hard and quickly and had it put right the day Taniko arrived.

She was completely cut off from the rest of the world. The servants avoided conversation with her. She longed for just a word about Atsue. Sometimes, when she woke from a night’s sleep, it would be a moment or two before she remembered that Kiyosi was dead and that Atsue had been taken from her. Then she would cry for hours before she could gather her strength to dress and take her morning meal. At night she would cry until she fell asleep.

There was absolutely nothing to do. She tried to write poetry, but she had no heart for it. She tried to write in her pillow book, which had followed her here from the Shima mansion along with her wardrobe and other personal possessions, but she had nothing to write about. Sometimes she thought about the tortures to which Horigawa might subject her, the kinds of death he might inflict on her, and she felt terror. But the realization of what she had lost, and how hopeless her future was, numbed her to fear. Whenever the sadness and the fear seemed unbearable, she found comfort in invoking the Buddha.

More than once it occurred to her that by slitting her throat she could put an end to her suffering, once and for all. But empty as her life seemed, dreadful as Horigawa’s plans for her might be, she was sustained by a feeling that somehow she would overcome all, that she still had a destiny to fulfil. Then, too, it would give Horigawa too much satisfaction to look down on her corpse and think he had driven her to kill herself. Nor could she bear to leave this world while Jebu was still part of it. As long as he was alive, she had not lost everything.

Finally, there was the thought of China, that fabulous country across the sea, from which came all beauty, all wisdom and all law. She could not die without seeing China.

One day a maid came to her. “His Highness says that you are to pack your very best robes and gowns, because you may be presented to some great lords of China.”

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