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The Great Lord wields a sharp sword, rides a fierce warhorse, commands unruly vassals. He has taken the heads of ten thousand foes. His martial prowess is the marvel of the realm. But did he not enter this world bawling from a woman's womb? Did he not suckle helplessly at a woman's breast? And when the cold stars sparkle like ice in the winter sky, and the depth of eternity chills his heart, for what does he yearn more than a woman's embrace?
1860, cloud of sparrows castle in akaoka domain
Lady Shizuka had not changed in the slightest in all the years Lord Kiyori had known her. Her complexion was as smooth as the finest Ming porcelain, with the perfect pallor of a courtly woman of the inner chamber, unlined by the passage of time, unblemished by exposure to sunlight or hardship, without any telltale signs of inappropriate deeds, thoughts, or feelings. Her eyes, when they were not regarding himshyly or knowingly or beguilingly, as the case may belooked off into an imaginary distance, with an expression of imminent pleased surprise, an expression accentuated by her high, plucked eyebrows. Her hair was not arranged into a coiffure of the modern type, with its complexity of folds, stacks, waves, and accessory devices, but simply middle-parted and tied with a light blue ribbon into a loose ponytail at her shoulders, from where it continued to flow down her back in an elegance of lustrous ebony all the way to the floor. Her gowns, too, in polished and crepe silks of contrasting textures, were of the classical type, loosely fitted and layered in complementary shades of blue ranging from the brightness of a high mountain pool to the near black of the evening sky. She was the very picture of a princess of the Era of the Shining Prince. An era, he reminded himself, many centuries past.
Outside this room, the great military might of outsider nations crowded in against Japan. The gigantic steam-powered warships of America, Britain, France, and Russia now freely entered Japanese ports. Aboard those ships were cannons that could hurl explosive shells as big as men far past the shore, even beyond inland mountains and forests, and shatter armies concealed from sight before they were close enough to know who was killing them. The ocean that separated the islands of Japan from the rest of the world was no longer a defense. The navies of the outsiders had hundreds of such smoke-belching, cannon-bearing ships, and those ships could bring more than bombardment from afar. From distant shores, they could carry tens of thousands of outsider troops armed with more cannons, and with handheld firearms as well, and land them on the shores of Japan within a few months. Yet here in this room in the highest tower of Cloud of Sparrows Castle, the Japan of old lived. He could pretend, at least for a time, that this was the totality of the world.
She saw him looking at her and smiled. Her expression was simultaneously innocent and conspiratorial. How did she manage it? Even the most brilliant of geishas could rarely blend the two into a single look. Demurely, she lowered her gaze and covered her girlish smile with the wide sleeve of her antique Heian kimono.
"You are embarrassing me, my lord. Is something amiss in my appearance?"
"How can there be?" Lord Kiyori said. "You are and will always be the most perfectly beautiful being in all the realm."
A playful expression came into her eyes.
"So you say, again and again. Yet when was the last time you did me the honor of visiting me in my chambers?"
"I asked you never to speak of that again." He knew by the heat in his face that he was blushing. How shameful for a man of his dignity and years to respond like a smitten boy. "That it happened at all is a regrettable error."
"Because of the difference in our ages?"
Anyone seeing her would take her to be no more than eighteen or nineteen, in the first bloom of womanhood, a highborn lady without doubt, possibly even a virgin. Anyone looking at him would see a man of advanced years, posture unbent by age or defeat, standing in relaxed readiness, his white-streaked hair arranged in the elaborate style of a samurai lord.
The difference in their ages. Yes, there was that, too, wasn't there? It wasn't something he ever thought about anymore.
He said, "It will never happen again."
"Is that prophecy?" Her tone was mocking, but not harsh, as if she were inviting him to share in a joke rather than having one at his expense.
"You know very well it is not."
"Are you not Okumichi no kami Kiyori, Great Lord of Akaoka? Then surely you are a prophet, as is the leader of your clan in every generation."
"So people say."
"People say so because your actions are often not explicable except through foreknowledge. If you are not a prophet, then how can you know the future?"
"How indeed." He had always felt the burden of the curse of prophecy, but lately, for the first time in his life, he had begun to feel the weight of time as well. Seventy-nine years. According to the records of the ancients, men of oldheroes, sages, the blessed of the sacred godsoften lived to be a hundred and more. He couldn't imagine it for himself. Indeed, it was a marvel he had lived as long as he had, all things considered. He had acceded to the rule of the domain at fifteen, married at eighteen, had sons late, and had lost his wife at forty. During all that time, he had secretly kept company with Lady Shizuka. How long had it been? This was the fourteenth year of the Emperor Komei. They had met in the seventeenth year of the Emperor Køokaku, whose reign had lasted thirty-eight years. After him, the Emperor Ninkao's twenty-nine years intervened before the ascension of the present sovereign. Was it sixty-four years ago? Out of habit, he double-checked himself using the outsiders' calendar. The seventeenth year of the Emperor Køokaku was a.d. 1796. This was a.d. 1860. Yes, sixty-four years.
She had said she was sixteen when they met. She said she was nineteen now. In Kiyori's eyes, she had not changed at all. He felt a chill not brought on by the mild winter morning.
"How should I know?" Shizuka said. "You are the one with the visions, are you not?"
"Surely you are not suggesting it is I who sees?"
"You have always made the claim," Kiyori said.
"And you have always denied it," Shizuka said. Concentration brought the slightest of furrows to her brow. She looked boldly into Kiyori's eyes. "Are you finally conceding the possibility?"
Kiyori was prevented from answering immediately by a voice outside the door.
"The tea is ready, my lord."
He distractedly watched the young housemaid, Hanako, silently slide the door open, bow, quickly survey the room, and pause. How thoughtless of him. By standing idly by the window, he gave her no point of reference. She would not know where to serve the tea. But before Kiyori could seat himself across from Lady Shizuka, Hanako went precisely where he would have guided her, at the midpoint between where he stood and where a guest would naturally seat herself in relationship to him. Hanako never ceased to impress him. From the first, when she had entered his service as a nine-year-old orphan, she had exhibited a quick intelligence and a strong intuition superior to that of most of his samurai.
"Thank you, Hanako. You may go."
"Yes, lord." Hanako bowed. Walking in reverse so as not to turn her back on the lord, she began to withdraw from the room.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Shizuka said, her voice so faint a whisper it could have been imaginary.
"Hanako. One moment." What had he forgotten? Oh, yes. "When the courier returns to Edo tomorrow, you will accompany him. There you will join Lord Genji's household staff at Quiet Crane Palace."
"Yes, lord." Although the command had come without warning, Hanako showed no sign of surprise. She assented unquestioningly, which was exactly the correct response.
"You have served me very well, Hanako. Your parents would be proud of you." Kiyori, of course, neither made apologies nor gave explanations for sending her away with no prior notice.
"Thank you, lord. You have been very kind to put up with my failings for so long."
He ignored the formal expression of humility. "I will be very grateful if you serve my grandson as well."
"Yes, lord. I will do my best."
When she had gone, Kiyori said, "Why am I sending her to Quiet Crane?"
"Are you asking me, my lord?"
"I am only thinking out loud," Kiyori said. "A bad habit that has given me a reputation for more eccentricity than I deserve."
"It is good you have thoughts on the matter, since the decision is yours." She paused before adding, "Is it not?"
Kiyori smiled sourly. He was in the same fix he always got himself into whenever he had conversations with Shizuka. His reasoning in these matters, no matter how logical, was almost always wrong. Such was the difference between logic and prophetic guidance.
He said, "I am sending Hanako to my grandson because now that he has assumed most of the formal duties of the Great Lord of our domain, he is in greater need of reliable servants than I am. This is particularly so because three more Christian missionaries are scheduled to arrive in Edo any day now, and they will live in Japan under our protection. Their presence will trigger a crisis that will determine the future of our clan. Beyond this immediate matter, I am hoping for a mutual blossoming of affection between Hanako and Genji. She is precisely the kind of woman he needs beside him in this perilous age."
"How consistent you are, my lord. Such clarity of thought, always."
"I take it I am mistaken, as usual." Kiyori poured tea for them both, a polite formality since Shizuka, as usual, did not take hers.
"The great difference in their social status is not an impediment?"
"Because the future will bring chaos, character is far more important than status."
"How wise," Shizuka said, "how liberated from the artificial strictures of social convention, how in keeping with the times."
"Not at all. My views are antiquated, and I know so little of the outside world, yet it is clear even to one with such constricted understanding that inherent merit is now far more valuable than inherited rank."
"You agree, yet you seem amused by my words. I take it Hanako and Genji are not destined for each other."
"There is always more to know," Shizuka said. "Whether it should be known is another matter. Do you wish to know more?"
"I wish to know no more than what I must know to insure the well-being of our clan."
"Then you know enough," Shizuka said.
Kiyori sipped his tea. His expression was placid, hiding the immense irritation he felt at her failure to satisfy his obvious curiosity. Would Hanako and Genji fall in love? He could not ask her, not because the question was inappropriateit concerned the succession of the prophetic power to the generation after Genji, a singularly important matter, and not one of mere romantic speculationbut because the asking itself raised an implication he had managed to avoid for sixty-four years. If she was going to tell him, she would have to do so without any request from him.
When it became obvious that he would not continue the conversation, a look of sadness came into Shizuka's eyes. She became very still. This happened not infrequently during their times together. In such moments of melancholy repose, her beauty was particularly ethereal. Could a man behold a vision so exquisite it alone was enough to drive him mad? If so, it would explain much, would it not? He had seen her at her most enchanting many, many times.
As he rose to leave, Shizuka surprised him. She said, "I have never asked you for a favor, my lord, nor will I ever ask another. Will you grant this one?"
"What is it?"
"If you will consent, you must do so without knowing."
To hesitate would be unmanly. "Then I consent."
Shizuka bowed deeply, her head to the floor before her. "Thank you, my lord."
Kiyori waited for her to continue. She kept her head down for a long time without speaking. When she looked up, her eyes were wet. He could not remember ever having seen her cry before.
Tears streaming, she said, "Take your evening meal here, then stay the night with me."
"This is a most unfair request," Kiyori said, genuinely aggrieved. "You have tricked me into agreeing to do what I have pledged my life and honor not to do."
"I ask only that you share my chamber, not my bed. My blood is as purely samurai as your own. I would never deceive you into violating a pledge."
Kiyori was still upset. He may not start the night in her bed, but being in the same room with her for an entire night, could he avoid ending there? Though his resolve was strong, he was a man, with all of a man's weaknesses. But there was no choice. He had already agreed. "Very well. Just this one night."
"Thank you, my lord," Shizuka said. She looked up and smiled at him through her tears.
Kiyori did not return her smile. It would be a very long night.
Hanako packed her belongings for the trip to Edo. She could hear two of the younger maids chattering in the next room.
"Lord Kiyori has ordered that dinner tonight be served to him in the high tower."
"No! How many settings?"
"Two! And he specifically said there was to be no sake."
"Dinner in the high tower. And no sake. How strange. He would only have dinner there if he intended to see an important guest in private. But for such a guest, he would order sake, wouldn't he?"
"Perhaps he doesn't expect a guest of the usual kind."
"You don't mean"
"His wife, do you think, or the other?"
This had gone too far. Hanako put down her folded clothing, went to the door dividing the two rooms, and slid it open. The two maids jumped, saw who it was, and sighed in relief.
"Oh, it's you, Hanako."
"Yes, it's me, fortunately. What if it weren't? What if it had been Lord Kiyori?"
"Oh, he never comes into the maids' quarters."
"Nevertheless, stop gossiping," Hanako said. "Or, if you must, then do so more discreetly."
"Yes, you're right," one the maids said. "Thank you for reminding us." They both bowed to her.