I Parker: The Convict's sword

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I Parker The Convict's sword
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    The Convict's sword
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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I J Parker

The Convict's Sword

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 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.



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.”

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