Shike – Day 99 of 306

One of their customs was utterly strange to her. She did not meet any upper-class women, but the servants assured her it was quite true that the feet of wealthy and well-born Chinese women were tightly bound when they were small girls, to keep them from growing. The deformed results, which looked something like the hooves of horses, were known as lily feet, and the Chinese women were proud of them. Taniko could not imagine why, nor why the Chinese men would find such feet attractive, as they evidently did. Only a man like Horigawa, she thought, would want a crippled woman.

Towards the end of the Year of the Horse, the prince’s Chinese secretary told her that Horigawa had finally made contact with Chia Ssu-tao. Because of the chief councillor’s passion for sponsoring cricket fights, Horigawa had scoured the ten major marketplaces of Linan and all the lesser ones till he found a truly formidable fighting cricket, for which he paid one hundred bolts of silk. He sent the cricket to the great minister in an ivory cage, with the compliments of one who served the Emperor of Ge-pen in the same capacity that Chia served the Sung Emperor. It was an exaggeration, but there was no way Chia Ssu-tao could discover that. Chia sent for Horigawa. What they had discussed, precisely, the secretary had no idea.

Horigawa was invited to Chia Ssu-tao’s celebration ushering in the Year of the Sheep. The chief councillor entertained his guests on Linan’s great Western Lake, chartering a fleet of flower-bedecked pleasure boats, crewed by women and heavily laden with casks of spiced rice wine. Horigawa was among the most favoured guests, those who accompanied Chia Ssu-tao himself on the dragon barge that led the fleet. Not long after this, Horigawa sent a sealed dispatch on a trading junk to Takashi no Sogamori.

Taniko passed the days writing in her pillow book, embroidering, and playing mah-jongg with a Chinese maid who taught her the game. The elderly secretary taught her the art of painting in the Chinese manner. She compared languages with him, both of them fascinated by the way Taniko’s language was written in Chinese characters, but with the characters standing for completely different words. The old man explained that China was known as the Central Kingdom because all the other nations of the earth must come to China to learn.

One day in early spring of the Year of the Sheep, Horigawa came to her. His small, squarish face was alight with pleasure and triumph.

“I have come to advise my honoured wife to prepare herself for a long and arduous journey by land. We leave in three days’ time.”

“Where are we going?” Taniko asked coldly.

“West.” Horigawa waved expansively in that direction.

“There is war in the west.”

“Yes. Are you afraid?” He watched her keenly. Perhaps he hoped that the long months of suspense and confinement would have broken her down.

“I am not,” Taniko said firmly. “Wherever we are going, if you are not frightened, I can be quite certain I will not be frightened.”

“You have more to fear than I do.”

Once again Taniko carefully packed away her silks, jewels, combs and the other belongings she had brought with her from Heian Kyo. She had not yet worn any of her finery.

The day before they were to leave she sought out the old secretary to say goodbye. He prostrated himself before her and looked up with tears in his eyes.

Taniko smiled. “I hardly deserve such an outpouring of feelings. Perhaps if you knew me better you would weep less at this parting.”

He shook his head. “Escape, honoured lady. Run away. Do not go with the prince.”

“How can I escape? Where could I go?”

“You are being taken to your destruction. To think that I should advise a wife to defy her husband—it is a great wrong I do. But the evil he contemplates is greater.”

He would say nothing more. She passed that day and night in dread. Of course, she had always known Horigawa had some cruelty in store for her, though the uneventful voyage and the quiet months in Linan had lulled her into a feeling of safety. There was danger in the west.

How could she run away from Horigawa in an utterly strange land? Could she find her way to Jebu? How would she eat? Where would she sleep? She would either be returned to Horigawa or fall into the hands of criminals. She could only escape if she had help. She decided to ask the secretary, since he had warned her, to help her get away.

After a sleepless night she dressed quickly. As she finished, Horigawa swept into the room.

“We depart at once.”

“I—I am not ready.”

“That is unfortunate. I’m sorry, but we leave in any case.” The little man beckoned, and two large Chinese serving-women came into the room.

“I am not going with you.”

“I suspected as much. Rumour of our destination has somehow reached you. One can appreciate at such times the usefulness of the Chinese custom of binding women’s feet.”

“I am sure the idea of torturing and deforming women appeals to you.”

Horigawa nodded to the two large women. With blank faces they stepped forward and reached for Taniko. She remembered her samurai training. She stepped towards the maid on her left, tripped her and sent her sprawling on her back. The other big woman threw her arms around Taniko from behind. Taniko drove her elbow into the woman’s stomach.

Horigawa tried to block the doorway, but Taniko thrust the heel of her hand into his chin. He fell back against the wall of the corridor.

She ran out of the room and into the arms of a steel-helmeted guard with a three-pointed sword swinging from his broad belt. He picked her up off her feet in a bear hug and held her impassively while she kicked against his massive body.

“Take her to the carriage and lock her in,” said Horigawa, panting as he picked himself up off the floor with the help of one of the maids. He bared his black-dyed teeth at Taniko. “I might say I will make things worse for you, to repay you for this. But your fate cannot be made any worse.”

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