The Tale of Hikari Chapter 8 Misei - Grey Dawn

After a night of strange and broken dreams, dawn had come as a relief to Sora.

She dreamt that Yamato had still been alive and that she had been walking hand-in-hand with him along the shore on a winter's day. The sand had been cool and soft beneath their feet, and the grey waves had lapped and swirled around them. He had been singing an old song to her, but the ocean-breezes had carried his voice away from her across the waves. When his song had finished and the last notes had died away into silence, he had smiled sadly at her and flames had risen around him to consume him. Screaming and crying, she had plunged her arms into the fire to try and save him, but they had only closed around ashes. . . .

She had dreamt that Takeru had been running through the darkness, chasing a fiery star that burnt on the far horizon. Its light had been so brilliant that she had averted her eyes for fear of being blinded by it. Yet Takeru had lifted his arms to it and it had fallen from the heavens to him. As its fire had consumed him, he had smiled at her . . . .

She had dreamt that she had been fishing in the river that ran down to the sea from the mountains. Two times, she had dipped her net in the water and it had come up empty, but she had caught something on her third attempt. It had been a strange creature, half-fish and half-baby. It had opened its wide mouth to wail for food and she had put it to her breast. . . .

Sora had woken with a shudder to see the first pale rays of light coming through the doorway. Another dawn had come, bringing with it another day that she had to survive. She remembered a time when she had looked forward to every new day, when her love for Yamato had transformed the hard, dull facts of her life into something new and magical. She had woken up in his arms to see him smiling at her and it had not mattered that they were poor and hungry and powerless to do anything about it. Even their work in the field had seemed like some wonderful game that had been invented just for them.

Stretching her arms above her head, Sora sat up in bed and looked around herself. As she had feared, Takeru had already woken and had left their hut for the Yagami estate on the hill. His own bed lay neat and empty in the corner, and his old clothes were folded up next to it. Some of his sketches decorated the wall above it; the pictures of flowers and fishermen and birds executed with such grace and skill that they seemed almost alive.

She knew some of the villagers found material for gossip in the fact that she lived with Takeru, even after she had turned down his proposal of marriage. The more malicious had once suggested that he was her baby's father, but one look from his blue eyes had been enough to silence them. No- one had ever truly believed the rumour, anyway. There was something so pure and child-like about him, something that refuted even the suggestion of wrongdoing. She wondered what those same gossips would say if they knew he was with Lady Yagami at that moment.

Sora was surprised to realise that she felt some jealousy at the thought. She did not love Takeru, but she did not like the thought of him loving someone else. It was curiously painful to imagine them lying in each other's arms and whispering nonsense to each other in the manner of all lovers. Sora could almost see the smile on his face as he bent over to kiss her, and hear her laugh in reply, the sound light and silvery like birdsong. Even though she had known that he would meet a woman and fall in love someday, she had not thought it would be any time soon. It had seemed as distant as that day when she would be reunited with her own husband in Amida's paradise.

"And why did it have to be her?" she whispered, pulling her legs up to her swollen stomach and pressing her head against her knees, "Why did it have to be a Yagami?"

---------------

As the first, grey rays of light came through the window, Mimi lay alone in her bed and planned the murder of her husband as she did every morning. It would be so easy to do. She would slip a dagger into their bed at night and slide it between his ribs; press a pillow over his face and wait until his chest no longer rose and fell; drop poison onto his tongue and watch it swell black; wrap her arms around his neck and squeeze and squeeze . . . Even the thought of exile to the provinces did not deter her very much. Hikari had survived it and she had always been stronger than her friend. Anything would be better than life with a sick, old man who saw her as a way of regaining his health and youth.

She shuddered in revulsion at the thought of his nightly visits. No matter how she perfumed herself with incense or washed herself with rice-water, she could still smell his sour, old scent on her skin and hair. It was like a ghost that haunted her during her days and would not let her forget the horror of her nights. When she had married him, she had resolved that she would never give him the satisfaction of a response, but her body betrayed her over and over again. He had more pleasure in those moments than she did - the same sterile pleasure that he had in his other medicines.

Her only consolation was that she would never give him any children, especially not the sons that he so desperately wanted to inherit his name and lands. Every night, she drank a mixture of herbs that was supposed to stop his seed from taking root in her womb. It was foul-tasting and had made her throw up on more than one occasion, but it had worked so far and she had every confidence that it would continue to work until her husband was on his deathbed. If Kannon-sama smiled upon her or if she took matters into her own hands, that would be sooner rather than later. (1)

"My lady," one of her serving maids appeared in the gap in the screens. She was holding a folded parchment that was tied with a strip of colourful silk, "A letter from the provinces for you. It was dropped off last night by a young man after you had retired."

Sitting up in bed, she took it from the girl and dismissed her. If it was from the provinces, it was probably from Yagami Hikari, yet the name on the front was not painted in her friend's usual hasty style. Each character had been charmingly done in alternating dark and light strokes so that it seemed to rise towards and retreat from her at the same time. It had been all the rage in court a few years ago, before overuse had driven it out of fashion again. It had to be from her step-mother Izumi, although Mimi did not know what cause she would have to write to her.

They might have shared some of their most private thoughts in the garden that night, but they had parted without any promises about keeping in touch with each other. They had both known they would not - it had been implicit in what they discussed. There were some feelings that could never be committed to paper, that could only be shared in the flower-scented darkness when all the world seemed a far and distant dream.

Her slender fingers undid the knotted silk and set it to one side, before unfolding the letter. To her surprise, she saw that there was a picture enclosed inside it. It showed a lane that she dimly remembered being part of the Yagami estate - two lines of tall, straight maples softened by the morning glory that grew wild over them. Even smudged by the trip it had undergone, it was an extraordinarily beautiful piece of work that the famous Genji himself would not have been ashamed to claim as his own. It must have been done by Lord Yagami, who had earned some renown as an artist during his time at court, but why would Izumi enclose it?

Frowning at it, Mimi noticed that there was a signature in one corner. It read simply "Takeru". Compared to the skill and assurance that was evident in every stroke of the drawing, it was clumsy and curiously childish. She must have written like that as a girl, before her fingers had gotten used to the brush and the shapes it had to trace. Even so, a boy could not have produced artwork of that quality, no matter how gifted he might be. . . .

More than a little curious now, she picked up the sheet that had accompanied the picture. Izumi had only written a few words and they were not eloquent ones, but they disturbed her all the more deeply because of that:

I fear that my imagination is running away with me and that I have
written to you for no reason, but I am worried about Hikari and am not
sure where else to turn. I know that you care deeply for her as a
friend and I hope that you will forgive my hastiness for her sake. In
all honesty, I would rather be proved wrong than right in this matter.

I have reason to suspect that my step-daughter is involved with a man
who is not of the same class, who is as far beneath her as the earth
is from the sun.
I would never have imagined her capable of something that disgraceful,
but there is enough proof to make me revisit that evaluation of her.
She goes for long walks alone before the sun rises, veiled and in her
most beautiful clothes. I am sure that they meet at that time; that
she goes to him in the village or he comes up to the estate.

I also have found many pictures like the one I sent you in her room. I
would like to believe that they have been painted by a distant admirer
in Miyako, but the scenes in them are too familiar. I have walked that
lane almost every day of my married life, rested against the trunks of
the maples, picked the morning-glory that hang from the trees. I do
not know how a man in the capital could draw it in such detail and
with such accuracy even if she had described it to him.

Please put my mind at rest. Tell me that you know of a nobleman in
Miyako called Takeru. Tell me that he is an artist of such skill that
he can capture on paper what his eye has never seen. Tell me that
Hikari is not having an affair with a peasant. . . .

---------------

"I've brought you a present," Takeru said with a mysterious smile as Hikari came down the path to meet him. After much agonising, she had left her veil off that morning, and she felt strangely exposed before his eyes. For a moment, she wished she had brought a fan behind which she could have hidden her face, but she shrugged off the thought. She had taken off her veil; she had shown him her face; and she could not go back to the way they had been any more than she could drag the sun back through the sky to prevent dawn from coming.

"What did you bring?" she asked, affecting a lightness and self-confidence she did not feel, "Another flower stolen from my father's garden?"

Takeru raised a reproachful eyebrow at her, "Come sit down and I'll show you, Lady Yagami."

Arranging the folds of her robes around herself, Hikari sat down next to him. She was wearing one of her favourite combinations that day - Sumac maples. It was a dazzling blend of yellows, golds, scarlet-pinks and maroons, and it always made her feel somehow exotic and glamorous, like a Chinese woman come from across the sea to a strange land. She wondered if peasants ever got tired of wearing the same plain and undyed robes; if someone who was as alive to colour and beauty as Takeru was ever wished that he could dress differently.

"Now, be very still and don't make a sound," he told her. His hands were folded into a little cage in front of him, and he slowly opened them to show her what was inside. On his rough, ink-stained palms, a moth fluttered its large, moon-luminous wings. Somehow, he had kept from damaging it - its wings were still perfect, and there was only a light dusting of white powder on his skin.

"Takeru, it's beautiful," she smiled at him, forgetting her awkwardness.

He smiled back and there was something a little shy about it, "I'm glad you like it. I found it fluttering around the remains of our fire this morning and wanted to bring it to you."

"Our fire?" Hikari asked as disinterestedly as she could when her heart was pounding in her ears, "I thought you were not yet married."

"Oh, I am," he said quickly, "I live with my brother's widow, but there's nothing . . . well, nothing like that between us. Sora-san's like my older sister."

Surprised, "You had a brother?"

"His name was Yamato," he looked away from her, but she still saw the gleam of tears in his eyes before he did, "He died in the plague a few months ago."

"I'm sorry. That must have been difficult for you," she said, knowing how inadequate the words must have sounded to him, "If you don't mind me asking . . . what was he like?"

"He was the best person I knew, and I'm not saying that just because I was his brother. He was good and kind and loving and brave. He made others want to be better just by who he was and what he did," Takeru's voice was unsteady, "And he could sing too, sing just like the birds in the trees. I wish . . . . "

He broke off with a choking sob, tears flowing freely now. Not knowing what else to say or do to comfort him, Hikari put a tentative hand on his shoulders and rubbed them gently. She was acutely aware of the heat of his skin through his thin robes, the fine muscles in his back, his own smell of clean earth and new grass. She felt something flutter in her insides, something previously earthbound and wingless that was trying to take flight. If I didn't know it was impossible, if it wasn't as ridiculous as a Chinese fable, if he wasn't a peasant, if I wasn't a noblewoman. . . I would what? I don't know. I don't know at all.

As his breathing slowed and his tears stopped, she drew her hand away and gave him an awkward smile, "I'm sorry, Takeru. I should never have asked you that."

"No, I'm sorry," he wiped at his eyes and laughed weakly, "I lost your moth, Lady Yagami."

"No, you didn't," she told him, "Look over there."

Against the dark, glossy leaves of the tree on which it had settled, the white moth looked like a rare and lovely flower. As they watched it, it beat its wings and flew up into the grey, early-morning sky. It disappeared over the treetops.

"It's gone," Takeru said ruefully, "I'll need to get you another present."

"It's okay," she smiled at him, "I think I prefer my moths to be free."

---------------

"You do understand that I will have to consider this proposal your father has brought me," Lord Motomiya steepled his ink-stained fingers in front of him and looked over them at Taichi. He had the seriousness and self- importance about him of someone who enjoyed the Emperor's favour and had risen through the circles of the civil service at a dizzying speed. His forehead had a permanent crease in it, while there were premature streaks of white at his temples, "I will not act against my son's best interests, and I am not sure whether an alliance with your family would be in them at this stage of his career."

"I understand, sir," Taichi replied, "When will you be able to give me an answer? I don't wish to rush your decision, but I cannot remain in Miyako for much longer."

"Come back in three days and I will have an answer for you to take to your father," he said, "I will need that much time to think properly about it."

"Yes, sir," he bowed to the older man, inwardly grateful for the excuse to spend more time in the capital, "And thank you, sir."

---------------

TO BE CONTINUED

---------------

NOTES:

(1) Kannon is the goddess of mercy.