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Authors: I. J. Parker

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Historical

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BOOK: The Convict's Sword
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“g” as in “game”
“j” as in “join”
“ch” as in “chat”
This fleeting world is
A star at dawn,
A bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning
In a summer cloud,
A flickering light,
A phantom,
And a dream.
—THE DIAMOND SUTRA
TEMPLE BELLS
The fifteenth day of the Fifth Month was the day Tomoe died. It was also the day of her birth, but otherwise unremarkable. She knew her way, had walked it daily now for two years, always before dark, because then she could dimly make out shapes.
She passed the restaurant, caught the rich smell of fish soup, and felt a fierce craving for it and for a cup of wine to celebrate. But there would be no wine, not even the cheapest, and no fish soup either, though there was a silver coin among the coppers she had earned today. She clutched her lute to her chest to feel the pressure of the coins inside her robe.
As she passed under the market gate, she was jostled by someone. Suddenly, a hand came from behind and felt her breast. She swung around with an angry cry and pulled the scarf from her face. The man who had touched her so familiarly cursed. He had not fondled a pretty young harlot, but an ogress. Tomoe was tempted to hiss and bare her teeth at the unseen tormentor, but she resisted.
People hated to look at her face, and she did not blame them. She had seen smallpox victims before the disease struck and blinded her. Their faces were deeply pitted with scars, their noses and mouths distorted and twisted, and their skin grotesquely stained in hues of fiery red and purple—horrid demon masks. The trouble was, she still had a young and slender body and filthy men lusted for it.
When she emerged from the gate into the street, she calmed her fury and listened for horsemen and carriage wheels. Runners, too, were a danger. More than once she had been knocked down and trampled.
But she had other fears than those inherent in her blindness. Among the desperately poor, beggars and whores could expect a friendly hand, but a woman of her class would be left to die in the gutter. Until recently she had believed herself safe in her chosen life.
The sun was gone already, and Tomoe hurried. With her free hand, she felt for the bamboo fencing at the corner of the next street and, having found it, walked alongside until it made way for the wall of a house. She recognized her world by touch and smell. And as always she listened. When she smelled food cooking, her empty stomach contracted painfully. There was nothing at home except some millet, part of an old cabbage, and a tiny sliver of dried fish. Never mind. She could manage for a little while longer.
Then, as she passed the long tenement where the day laborers rented cheap rooms, she heard the footsteps again, and her blood froze. Step, shuffle. Step, shuffle. The first time he had followed her, she had thought he was just some old man on his way home. When she heard him again another day, she had gathered her courage and stopped to see if he would speak. But the steps had stopped too, and suddenly she had been afraid.
That was the worst part of being blind: what you cannot see takes on bizarre and menacing proportions.
She walked faster, clutching the lute and her money, passing her free hand along walls, gates, fences, and shrubbery. Another turn and she would be home. She paused to make sure she had lost her pursuer, but at that moment the evening bells began their booming call to prayer, their deep clamor swallowing all other sounds. Seized by sudden panic, she ran.
She reached the rickety gate to the stonemason’s yard, slipped the latch with clumsy, trembling fingers, ran through, and slammed it behind her. In her panic, she bruised her shin on one of the stone markers her landlord stored here, but she gained her backdoor, unlocked it, plunged inside, and dropped the latch in place.
Outside the bells stopped ringing.
Leaning against the door, she caught a deep, shuddering breath and willed her hammering heart to calm. Then she set down her lute, and took the money from her gown. It was not enough, but she could not wait any longer. By early morning light she would leave the city. She felt her way to the trunk, lifted out her bedding, spread it on the floor, and was about to put away the money when she heard someone try the latch.
Her landlord? The small room had two doors. The other led to the quarters of the stonemason who rented her this room. The Shigehiros were not kind people; he often spied on her through the cracks in the backdoor, and his wife knew it and hated her.
She pushed the money back inside her robe, slammed down the lid of the trunk, and called out, “Go away, you dirty animal!”
No answer, just some hard breathing.
Seized by sudden anger, she went to the door, pulled the latch back, and threw it open. She knew him instantly, but he pushed hard against her chest and the door slammed shut as she stumbled backward, falling across the bedding with him on top of her.
She had been raped before, at night on the streets when the men could not see her face. She tried to lie still, tried to turn her face away, but a violent revulsion seized her; she gagged and struck out at him.
He cursed, and she felt her face sting, then felt the hot blood pouring from a wound, and knew he had a knife. Screaming, she fought him, fought to get away, scratching, clawing, and hitting, felt the knife as it cut her hand, then felt it sink deep into her upper arm. She twisted away, crawling through her own blood and feeling along the wall for the door to the house, to the Shigehiros and help. He cursed. The knife slashed across her back and, deflected by a shoulder blade, sliced into her buttocks. Pain racked her body. Through her own screams, she heard his rage and realized with almost detached surprise that he meant to kill her. She had feared torture but never murder. Oh, dear heaven, what would become of the children?
Crying, slipping in her blood, she managed to reach the door and rise to her feet, but he barred her way. The knife struck again, into her chest, and then into her belly. There was a roaring in her ears. She choked on blood. Touching the door, she slipped and fell into blinding light.
CHAPTER ONE
THE TWO CLERKS
 
 
 
The strange “thwack, thwack” noise coming from outside penetrated the warm, scented tangle of silk robes under which Akitada dozed, his face burrowed in his wife’s warm neck. The curious noise warred for a time with some rather pleasant stirrings of desire for Tamako until Akitada opened his eyes and saw the lines of gold made by sunshine falling through the closed shutters.
Tamako turned to him with a soft rustle of silk, her bare feet seeking his. Her pretty face was flushed with sleep, her eyes heavy, perhaps with desire.
But he decided it was too late for lovemaking. With a smile for Tamako, he rose, pushed back the shutters, and walked out onto the veranda.
It was one of those perfect mornings: blue skies, bird song, the wisteria heavy with purple blooms scenting the warm air. Then, from beyond the garden wall, came a ferocious, “Take that, you son of a mangy rat!” Thwack! “And that, you foul piece of dung!” Thwack! “And that, you empty gourd not good enough to hold dog’s piss!” Thwack!
Akitada smiled, his heart filled with almost perfect contentment.
“Yori!” murmured Tamako, stepping out behind him and covering her ears.
Akitada laughed softly. “Ssh! He is practicing with his new sword. Tora must have built a straw man for him. I think Yori may grow up to be a famous swordsman. We have never had anything but dry poets and clerks in the Sugawara family.”
His wife shuddered. “I hope not and I wish you would not encourage him. His language is abominable. That was also To ra’s teaching, I suppose?”
Akitada thought how very pretty she was, standing there in her thin white under-robe, the silken hair rippling down her back and shimmering where the sun touched it. He reached for her and pulled her into his arms, whispering in her ear, “Yori is almost five and I have a great desire for more children. Let us go back inside.”
To his delight he could feel the warmth of her flush against his cheek, and through the thin silk his palms sensed the merest shudder of desire. For a moment she relaxed against him, but then she pulled away gently. “The sun is high already. Aren’t you going to the
Daidairi
today?”
The
Daidairi,
or Greater Palace, was the walled and gated government complex occupying the northernmost center of the capital. It encompassed the imperial residence and all the ministries and bureaus. Akitada worked in the Ministry of Justice.
With his wife’s question, memory returned and drowned his joy. He released Tamako. “You’re right. It’s late.” He clapped his hands sharply.
From the other side of the wall a child’s voice called out, “Good morning, honorable father and mother. Shall I bring your morning rice?”
Akitada shouted back, “Good morning, Yori. Thank you, but Seimei will do it. Ah, here he comes now. Keep up your practice.”
Seimei had served Akitada’s father before him. He was well past seventy now and his thin back was bent from years of service. He moved slowly, but carried himself with the natural dignity of a respected family elder. There was no need for him to perform such humble services for his master, but the old man insisted, and his presence was a comfort to Akitada.
Seimei bowed as he entered the room and set down the tray with two bowls of rice gruel. “Will you be wearing your ordinary robe today?”
“Yes.” Akitada eyed his food with distaste. The thought of his problems at the ministry had taken his appetite.
Seimei departed with another bow, and husband and wife sat on the veranda, sipping their gruel to the accompaniment of more thwacks and ferocious language. From time to time, Tamako glanced uneasily at her husband’s thin features. She was too well-bred to pry into her husband’s affairs, but after a long silence, she said cautiously, “I suppose your new position entails many difficult cases?”
“What? Oh. Not at all. Just dull routine. Though there is enough of it.” He fell back into his black mood and stared into his half-filled bowl. When she reached across to touch his forehead, he raised his eyes, surprised.
“You’re not eating. I wondered if you might be feverish. There has been talk about smallpox.”
“I’m perfectly well.” He took a small sip from the bowl to prove it. “There are always rumors about some disease. We’ve had twenty years without a major outbreak of smallpox in the capital. You must not pay attention to such tales.”
“They say if the illness has stayed away for many years, it returns with much greater virulence,” she said defensively.
“Nonsense.”
Tamako bit her lip. She was becoming impatient with her husband’s mood. “Then what is the matter?” she demanded bluntly, adding for form’s sake, “Please forgive my rude curiosity.”
Akitada looked at her and set aside the half-eaten gruel. “I ran into an old acquaintance yesterday. Do you recall the very important guest we entertained in Echigo?”
“Oh.” Her eyes widened. “His Majesty’s private secretary?”
Her husband nodded. “He has retired and become a monk. They all seem to do that nowadays. Afraid of death, I suppose. He asked about you and Yori.”
She bowed slightly. “I am honored, but I have not forgiven him for putting you in such danger on that terrible island.”
“We owe him our present comfortable life. But he reminded me ...” Akitada stopped himself. He had never told her—partly to spare her the details of the horror he had lived through, and partly because Haseo’s story was still unfinished, the solemn promise made to a dying friend still unkept. Only Tora knew, because he had been there with them after that final, terrible battle. Since then, nearly five years had passed, five years during which Akitada had been chained to his duties in Echigo and after his return had dealt with a series of family catastrophes. And now there were new duties in the ministry: a promotion to first secretary, all the meetings and attendance at official affairs that entailed, piles of paperwork, and a bitter enemy for his superior.
BOOK: The Convict's Sword
4.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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