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Episode 4 – ‘A Gilded Cage’

Monday, 2 December, 2013· Last Updated on: Monday, 2 December, 2013

in A Gilded Cage

Episode 4 – ‘A Gilded Cage’Through the side gate

‘The dowager widow is back. She’s demanding to see you.’ The voice of Sakurai, Ejima’s chief maid, echoed through the lavish apartments to the inner chamber where Ejima was lying with her lover, the actor Shingoro.

Ejima gasped and sat up with a start, half-expecting to see the dreaded dowager come sweeping into the room and bear down on the two of them, her face like thunder.

‘So the old dragon’s back,’ Shingoro drawled, putting his arms around Ejima and trying to tug her back down again. ‘She can’t be that bad. She was young herself once. She must have had lovers too.’

‘You don’t understand what this place is or what power she has.’ Ejima’s voice was shaking. ‘She’ll have our heads on the executioner’s block.’

He sat up too then and took her hands. ‘You’re a merchant’s daughter, not some spoilt aristocrat,’ he said, looking at her steadily. ‘You don’t belong in this prison, living like a nun surrounded by all this luxury. Don’t be afraid, I’ll find a way to get you out.’

‘It’s too late,’ she cried. ‘Hurry. You must leave.’

She gazed at him despairingly, trying to fix his face in her memory – his black eyes, his slanting cheekbones, his laughing mouth. She couldn’t bear to think she’d never see him again.

As he threw on his clothes, she ran into the main chamber. Sakurai was waiting discreetly outside the door.

‘Tell the dowager I’m eager to see her,’ Ejima said breathlessly. ‘Tell her I’ll be on my way in a moment.’

The trunk that they had used to smuggle Shingoro in was at the side of the room. It was comfortably padded, with bedding and breathing holes. ‘Hurry,’ she said to Shingoro. ‘Hurry.’

He took her in his arms. ‘You know where to find me – at the house behind the forked willow. Come when you have a chance.’

‘The dowager will be watching my every step,’ she groaned.

‘Nothing will keep us apart.’ He pressed his lips to hers and she thrilled to his touch, savouring this last embrace, forgetting everything, even the peril they were in. Slowly he drew away and leapt nimbly into the trunk, giving her a reassuring grin as he lay down and she lowered the lid.

The bearers were at the door. In the women’s palace they too were women, in black livery. They slid poles through the carrying handles and hefted the trunk onto their shoulders, grumbling at the weight.

Ejima watched as they disappeared along the corridor. As she turned back she noticed that the room was silent. The bush warbler had stopped chirruping. She ran to the cage. The little bird was huddled on the floor in a ball of brown feathers, its claws in the air. Trembling, she opened the door, reached in and touched the tiny body. It was stiff and cold. She leapt back, stifling a cry. It seemed a terrible omen.

Wiping away tears, she called her ladies to dress her as quickly as they could. Her mind was racing. Surely there could be only one reason why the dowager wanted to see her. She must have guessed something of what had gone on in her absence. Maybe her pilgrimage had been a trap to lure them into relaxing their guard so that she could gain the upper hand over the palace.

For, as Ejima knew all too well, she was not the only one who had broken the strict rules of the women’s palace. Her friend and mistress, Gekkoin, had committed a yet more serious offence. As the mother of the four-year-old shogun, she above all was supposed to remain utterly pure, removed from the company of men. Yet she had engaged in a passionate affair with Manabu, the handsome grand chamberlain who was the regent for her young son and, while the dowager widow was away, she’d cast aside all restraint, barely bothering to conceal their meetings, touching his arm in public, brushing the back of his collar as if she were his wife.

If Ejima’s fears were correct then they were all ruined.

Her heart heavy with foreboding, Ejima led her ladies out of her rooms. She heard the swish of kimonos as they followed her past one set of luxurious chambers, then another. They passed the kitchens and dining rooms and crossed the arched bridge with its delicate fretted ceiling that led to the distant wing where the dowager lived. The gardens outside were covered in a dusting of snow. Pine trees poked through, cocooned in straw to protect them from the cold.

At the dowager’s quarters Sakurai dropped to her knees outside the great double doors and slid one open. A musty smell floated out.

The room was full of clutter – screens, chests, vases, porcelain dolls in boxes and racks of kimonos, heavy with gold. The dowager was enthroned in the middle, surrounded by her ancient ladies-in-waiting. She was wearing a nun’s habit as befitted a widow, her fine-boned face framed in the severe folds of her wimple. She was not only the widow of the late shogun but the emperor’s sister, a princess of the blood, and nothing could conceal her proud bearing.

‘Welcome back, your highness.’ Ejima dropped to her knees with her hands on the fragrant straw matting. Behind her her ladies bowed in a rustle of silk.

‘Thank you for keeping order in the palace,’ replied the dowager. A thin smile flitted across her face. Ejima shuddered, wondering what dark plan lurked behind that serene mask.

‘You will be wondering why I asked you here,’ the dowager said. The room was utterly silent. ‘I have had disturbing news. It seems Her Highness Lady Gekkoin has broken palace rules.’

Ejima had been terrified that the dowager had somehow discovered her own crimes. But this was worse, far worse.

When the old shogun died and Gekkoin’s son became the new ruler, Gekkoin had supplanted the dowager at the top of the palace hierarchy. The old lady had been her bitter enemy ever since. If she’d managed to find evidence of misdemeanour on Gekkoin’s part, it would prove Gekkoin unsuitable for high office. The dowager would have her expelled, overthrow the child shogun and install her own candidate instead. It was a threat to the whole country, not just their own lives.

Ejima took a breath. ‘I’ve been with Her Highness all the time,’ she declared firmly. ‘There has been no misbehaviour. Whoever told you so is mistaken.’ Her cheeks grew hot at the blatant lie.

‘I know you’re close to Her Highness,’ said the dowager in silky tones. ‘But you wouldn’t want palace discipline undermined, I’m sure.’

‘Certainly not,’ said Ejima, fully in control now. ‘I assure you, my lady is honourable and virtuous. She would never do anything improper.’

‘Is that so?’ The dowager leaned forward and gripped Ejima’s wrist. Ejima started and the hair on the back of her neck rose as the bony fingers tightened like claws. ‘My dear Lady Ejima, I have had another yet more disturbing report. I have heard speak of an actor, one Shingoro Ikushima …’

The blood drained from Ejima’s face. Her heart thundered and she could hear the blood roaring in her ears. ‘That’s to be expected,’ she muttered. Her mouth was dry and her voice shaking. ‘He is very famous. My ladies and I have all seen him perform.’

The dowager put her face close to Ejima’s. ‘You have disgraced the palace and shamed us all,’ she hissed. ‘You know the punishment: death, for you and your lover.’ She spat out the last word, eyes gleaming. ‘There is, however, one way you can escape,’ she added softly. The room was even quieter than before.

A shiver ran down Ejima’s spine. She was shaking.

‘All you have to do is confirm that Her Highness Lady Gekkoin committed an offence. A written statement will do or one small piece of evidence, and I promise, on my honour as a princess of the imperial court, that you and your lover will be free to do as you please for the rest of your lives.’

Ejima stared at her in horror. The dowager was asking her to commit treason, to betray her friend and mistress. Yet the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. If she did not do what the dowager required, she would be condemning not only herself but her beloved Shingoro to death. The old lady had led her into a trap.

‘Think very carefully before you answer,’ said the dowager. ‘Remember the consequences if you refuse to cooperate.’

Ejima pictured Shingoro, his smile, his black eyes. It wrenched her heart to have to do such a terrible thing but she couldn’t see any way out. She knew where her duty and loyalty lay. She had no choice but to sacrifice her own life and his for the sake of the country. Still she couldn’t utter the words that would be his death sentence. Trembling she opened and closed her mouth but not a sound came out.

Finally she took a deep breath. ‘I swear by all the gods,’ she whispered. The dowager leant forward. ‘I swear by all the gods … that my lady Gekkoin is of impeccable virtue.’

The dowager’s face blackened. ‘Fool!’ she snarled. ‘We will have your lover arrested and tortured until he confesses.’

‘There’s no need for that,’ said Ejima, drawing herself up fiercely. ‘Leave him be. Arrest me, I give myself up. Do your worst.’

Ejima knelt in her chambers, dressed only in her under kimono, the white shift that marked her as a condemned criminal. Her glossy black hair which had swept the floor had been sheared off like a nun’s.

She gazed around at these rooms which had been her home for so long – the empty cage where the little bird had lived, the kimonos draped over racks, the alcove with its vase filled with winter branches, the scrolls painted with scenes of snow and plum blossom, the incense burners filling the air with fragrance – and thought how strange were the twists and turns of fate, how extraordinary to have risen so high, only to fall so low.

She remembered the events of the past few days, how the dowager had tried again and again to persuade her to betray Gekkoin. But she had steadfastly refused. Finally she had been summoned to the audience chamber and knelt, head bowed, before the assembled ladies. The little shogun was perched on his throne on the dais, his chubby face grave, presiding over the meeting, with Gekkoin and Manabu to one side of him and the dowager on the other.

The dowager had stated her case. Her face was grave but there was a triumphant gleam in her eye. She drew herself up and addressed the shogun. ‘It pains me to say this but, as Your Highness knows, there is only one punishment severe enough for such a hideous crime. Lady Ejima must be sent for execution forthwith.’

The ladies gasped. Many were ashen-face and weeping but none dared oppose the dowager.

‘No! I don’t allow it!’ Ejima looked up, startled, as all eyes swung towards the dais. The child shogun had never before spoken up in front of the assembly. Manabu whispered urgently to him but he shook his small head and said firmly in his piping voice, ‘Ejima shall not die. I forbid it. I don’t care what she’s done.’

A murmur ran through the crowd of ladies. Manabu lowered his head for a moment as if in thought then stared defiantly at the dowager. ‘It is the shogun’s prerogative to show mercy. The sentence is commuted to exile.’

The dowager gave a hiss of fury. She had been gripping her fan, her knuckles white. She snapped it in half with a crack and for a moment her face twisted into a demon mask before she smoothed it back into an expression of haughty disdain.

Ejima had stumbled, half-fainting, back to her rooms. Her only thought had been Shingoro. What would become of him? What use was life to her if he were to die?

Now she took a last look around her rooms. Soon she would be leaving for ever, to live out her days in an unknown place far away. But she cared nothing for what became of her. Without Shingoro her life was meaningless.

Sakurai came to lead her through the palace. Barefoot, in her white shift, she walked past the ladies’ chambers and through the great doors to the tradesmen’s entrance, stacked with merchants’ trunks, that connected the palace with the outside world. She remembered the many times she had hurried through, hoping not to be noticed, on her way to meet Shingoro.

But today she could no longer use it. Beside it was a small door, the Gate of the Unclean, for condemned criminals on their way to execution or exile. It had been closed for so long that ivy had grown over it but today it had been wrenched open. The lintel was so low she had to stoop as she stepped through, feeling the gravel cut into her bare feet.

She stood uncertainly on the other side of the gate, looking at the crowds gathered outside to stare at the disgraced court lady and the grim sedan chair, not cushioned and padded but hard and unlined, ready to take her away.

Gekkoin was waiting there. She rushed forward, tears pouring down her face. ‘Forgive me,’ she whispered. ‘I know the sacrifice you’ve made. If it wasn’t for my son I would take the blame myself, but I daren’t jeopardise his position. The welfare of the whole country depends on him. Thank you!’

Ejima put a hand on Gekkoin’s arm. ‘You are my dear friend and mistress. I will always think of you with affection. I know you’ve done all you can to make this easier for me.’

There were shouts and jeers as the bearers lifted the sedan chair and carried it across the bridge and through the crowds. When Ejima dried her eyes and peered through the tiny window, she saw that they were passing near the theatre. There was a sign draped across the front: ‘Closed by order of the government.’ This too was the result of the choice she’d had to make.

She was huddling miserably in the sedan chair when she heard shrieks and sobs and women’s voices wailing, ‘Have mercy! Not execution! Let him go!’ They’d reached the prison gates. Peering out she saw a man in shackles being dragged out and pushed into a wooden cage. His head was shaved and there was a growth of beard around his chin but he still managed a grin for the crowd. Shingoro. The dowager must have arranged the timing to cause Ejima the greatest possible pain. Then he saw the sedan chair. He must have guessed that Ejima was inside for he gave a bow and a gentle smile.

A moment later he was swallowed up in the throng and she was left with only the memory of his face to cling to.

Ejima lost track of how many days had passed as she journeyed up and down mountains and along valleys, cramped and cold in the tiny hard box with only frugal fare to eat. But she didn’t care about what happened to her. All she could think of was Shingoro – the happiness they had had together and that last sight of him being led away to execution. She felt as if her tears would never cease.

Then one day she smelt salt on the breeze. The bearers set the sedan chair down and weathered faces crowded around as Ejima stepped out. She was in a small village of thatched houses on the edge of the sea, with terraced paddy fields stretching away into the distance. She looked around, dazed. She had never before been out of the city, let alone in such a remote rural place.

‘You’re to live here,’ said the chief bearer.

The villagers led her to a house at the edge of the village, as small and modest as the house behind the forked willow. The memory brought tears to her eyes.

‘Such soft hands,’ said a young woman in a dialect so outlandish Ejima could barely understand her. ‘How is she going to dig and plant and harvest?’

A bent old man came up. ‘Can you read and write?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Let her teach our children. She’ll be our scribe, she can write for us.’

Little by little Ejima settled into village life. She taught the children and wrote sutras for the temple, shared the villagers’ food and at night slept on coarse reed mats. She yearned incessantly for Shingoro. She wanted to keep busy, to keep her mind off her sadness. But she didn’t miss the luxury of the palace at all. The villagers were kind to her. She was free, she could do what she wanted.

Spring came and the cherry trees and irises bloomed. The fields were full of wild flowers. The villagers prepared for the annual festivities to mark the beginning of the rice planting season.

One day Ejima had gone out walking to collect wild flowers. When she got back she saw the villagers gathered around her house. The headman stepped forward, looking grave. ‘A new exile has arrived,’ he said. ‘Another criminal. He fell foul of the government too. You’re to share the house.’

Ejima’s heart sank. She had become used to life in the village. She didn’t want to share her house with a stranger. Who could this criminal be? A murderer, perhaps. Maybe the dowager had had her way. Maybe they wanted to make her punishment harsher.

‘It’s by order of Her Highness Lady Gekkoin,’ said the headman.

As he spoke the door of the house opened and a man stepped out. Ejima gasped, wondering if she could be dreaming. But no, she was awake. Her heart filled with happiness. His face was thinner and his hair had grown into a rough thatch but there was no mistaking.

‘Shingoro,’ she said softly, feeling the weight of sadness fall away.

He took her hand and led her away from the crowd, down to the sea. They stood side by side watching the sun setting across the water as waves lapped on the shore. Feeling the warmth of his palm on hers, seeing herself reflected in his black eyes, Ejima knew they would be happy here.

(Originally published in My Weekly)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Williams December 2, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Lesley, please tell me that this is a true story!

Alina December 2, 2013 at 10:55 pm

What a fantastic story! I was hoping throughout that they would be happy together!!

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