A light snow fell on the red lanterns and cobbled alleys of the Yoshiwara, the pleasure quarter of Edo. Ice broke thinly beneath the high, damask sandals of the courtesan as she swayed silkily past the raucous tea shops and restaurants, the gaudy posters of kabuki actors, and the many strolling men. They lowered their eyes when she boldly appraised them. She recognized a priest despite his merchant disguise.
Rice brokers and silk traders and saké brewers or their sons argued drunkenly over where they would spend large amounts of money next, and called out lewdly to the street women in robes so loose they exposed the shoulders, sometimes a breast. Some of the men were disheveled, too, their drab cotton clothes revealing the brilliant lining of silk that the aristocracy could no longer afford and that the merchants could not display under the sumptuary laws. A lower-ranked prostitute, little more than a waitress, pulled at the shabby sleeve of a young man and offered her services for free. The courtesan recognized him as a striving writer, a hanger-on of one of her patrons, a celebrated poet whose image was in many a woodblock-print shop. She smiled and drew her short coat closely around the layers of her kimono.
It was the late 17th century. The 18-year-old Emperor was sequestered in Kyoto, and the Shogun ruled from Edo, casting a net of steel and spies over the land. In this era of peace and unmatched wealth, merchants enjoyed a life of pleasure and art thanks to the underclass of actors and courtesans. Officially disdained by polite society, they were richer, more self-indulgent, and freer than the fading aristocracy and the ascetic, Confucian samurai, and even the merchants. This was the floating world—the ukiyo.* A word that once evoked the sad impermanence of earthly things now meant all that was fashionable and nouveau. The strains of drinking songs and bits of ribaldry hovered in the cold air, and the courtesan lifted her smooth face to the snow, feeling it on her eyelids, grateful that she lived in this floating—if fleeting—world of color, luxury, and excess.
The drunken men dared not accost her. They knew who she was and where she was going. At the edge of the pleasure quarter was a quiet alley and a teahouse different from all the others. It appeared dark and quiet. It did not even have a split curtain over the gate announcing its name—just a stone lantern that cast short shadows on the snow. It was the Tora—the Tiger. An unusual name for a teahouse, but it was an unusual teahouse.
A guard slid opens the wooden gate, and the courtesan stepped into a silent stone courtyard. Another door and another slid open. Suddenly she was in a world of brilliant lanterns and song and samisen music and drunken merriment. Leaving her sandals on the stones, she stepped up to the creaking wooden floor in her white split-toe socks, carefully gathering her many skirts. A servant took her coat, and she smoothed her long, wide sleeves.
She was the only courtesan of the Tora, in the whole of Edo, in fact, whose hair was not elaborately sculpted and lacquered. Her hair flowed, stopped loosely in the middle of her back by a black silk ribbon, and flowed again to below the waist, a long, thick ink stroke against gold and purple. She shook the snow from her hair and the tendrils brushed her cheeks. She was also the only courtesan in Edo who did not mask her face in white powder; her features were accented, not disguised.
The Tora’s Master, her business partner, had requested her presence. The occasion was special and she would work for free. She could not decline, nor did she wish to. It was part of an arrangement—one that brought in no direct profit to the Tora but allowed it to prosper.
The highest-ranking generals of the Shogunate regularly came to the Tora. Here they did not suffer the indignity of wearing a disguise but arrived proudly on horseback, their crests emblazoned on their uniforms. The Shogun himself had graced the Tora, and the courtesan entertained him then, interpreting for him and a Portuguese emissary. Educated like a male, she was prized by the Tora for her language skills and the ease with which she could converse with playwrights and military strategists, painters and bankers.
Her privileges were extensive. She need not shed her clothes, for she could decide upon whom she would bestow earthly pleasure. She could decline the Shogun himself despite the sheer power and intelligence he exuded as he sat silently, taking in much through his hooded eyes. He was, in any case, more interested in her translation skills than her charm, and valued her opinion when he asked for it in private, usually at the Castle. The other courtesans provided the generals with sensual entertainment. Some generals, however, were escorted by young, beautiful warriors—the ones that her patron Saikaku described in The Comrade Loves of the Samurai—seeking only a place that looked kindly upon their unnamed love and offered luxurious diversions.
The letter she received that day from the Tora’s Master simply said that the guest was a general and an adviser of the Shogun. That was not unusual, but the name was strange, and the letter said that the general was a gaijin, a foreigner. Why, she wondered as she soaked in her bath, would the Shogun have a barbarian in his inner circle? The Tora’s Master hinted that the general was skilled in European weapons and was helping the Shogunate train the samurai in their use. He also said that the general was learned in various healing arts. She had never heard of such a combination of skills. She had never even heard of the general’s land. Was it, perhaps, an unknown province of China? A new kingdom in Europe, that land of endless tribal warfare?
She had dressed carefully, holding her arms up patiently as her servant wound the wide green sash around her several times, tight enough to keep the layers of silk together but loose and low enough to allow the lapels to fall open if necessary. She hoped that he was not Dutch, who were permitted to live in Nagasaki. She had no wish to be in the company of the pale-eyed, who, it was said, urinated like dogs, one leg lifted, and did not bathe.
Now she stood outside the Room of Clouds. Her eyes cast down, she slid the door open to enter, and closed it. She sank to her knees, placed her delicate fingertips on the straw matting, and bowed deeply.
When she raised her head she was unable to speak. In the dim, warm light, he sat cross-legged beside a low table, drinking saké, leaning on a black-lacquered armrest. His eyes were dark and sharp, his hair and goatee almost black. His robe was a deep-crimson silk, with small, white, embroidered crests—a bird of prey that she did not recognize and unlike the usual stylized flowers of the samurai. He was a barbarian, yet at ease and proud. A man who looked like a hawk, whose head and face were unshaved. A man so large that she felt like a doll. For the first time in her career, her limbs froze in mild panic. She was staring and her silence becoming rude. Blushing, she bowed deeply and found her voice.
“General Da Ka of Gor?”
“Aye,” DaKar replied, lifting the small cup to half-smiling lips. “And you,” he said, “are Sayoko, the ‘the blossoming night girl.’ Greetings.”
He had not quite known what to expect: there were no courtesans in his land, only free women and slaves. The sight of the small, bowing woman pleased him: she was surrounded by the petals of her robes, which were similar to a free woman’s, yet suggested what lay beneath and seemed to be easily shed.
Sayoko was startled by his command of the language but also by the strange and direct way that he used it. She joined him at the low table. He towered over her. She bowed, not as deeply this time. “I do hope,” she replied formally, “that you will look kindly upon me.”
She poured saké from a jar that seemed to float in her small hands, into the tiny brown-glazed cup he held out. “Welcome to the Tora, General,” she smiled warmly and raised her own cup to him. “I apologize for my earlier rudeness. I did not expect a foreigner in samurai garb.”
“I am a guest of the Shogun,” he replied easily. “And I understand that you will be teaching me your country’s ways as well as entertaining me. To what extent was left unsaid. But I assume that it will be to any extent I wish.”
“With all due respect, General,” she said in her most polite language, “I am afraid you have been misinformed. I do entertain, but the extent to which I do depends on what I wish.”
“Well,” he laughed, “you will wish to serve me as I see fit.” He put his empty cup on the table in a playful rebuke of her neglect. She blushed as she poured more wine, flustered by yet another faux pas and by the arrogance of her admittedly handsome patron. She recovered quickly and gave him her most brilliant smile. “I understand,” she said, “that you are training the samurai to use European weaponry.”
Her composure fully restored, she performed her courtesan’s duties. She made sure that his cup was never empty and she discussed the benefits of the country’s closed-door policy. Serving girls brought in small plates of raw fish, bean curd in sauces, seaweed, and shrimp. He was amused and pleased. Serious discussions with the Shogun’s inner circle were tedious, the Castle dreary, and women seldom seen. But then, he knew, the Tora existed to give the generals and state guests pleasure, including the company of witty, risqué women, while protecting the dignity of the Castle.
Now she was brazen enough to examine him as she would a scroll or a sword. His size alone made him exotic, and he was even more imposing in the wide-shouldered uniform. She wondered, trying to crush the thought, if he was large in every way.
He smiled at her boldness. He had already decided to take her but knew he must first open something within her, by breaking it if needed. She was flower-soft, but an invisible brittleness lay between them.
She ended her lecture and he slipped the robe off her shoulders to her elbows, baring her small breasts. She was genuinely surprised, then indignant. As she tried to twist away, he pressed her arms hard to her sides and forced her back on the tatami, smiling at her astonishment. His violence parted her robes.
She turned her head to avoid his eyes but gasped as he forced her smooth thighs apart. He pulled her sleeves down roughly and she winced. Only her hips and mound were covered by the silk. He held her wrists above her head with one hand and stroked her thigh, breast, and face with the other. He took her chin and forced her to look at him. She saw the certainty in his eyes and smelled his clean skin, and she felt a rush of heat from her core to her breasts. She arched her back and tried to twist her wrists out of his grip but only appeared to offer herself. He took a small, dark nipple between his lips, running his tongue over it, then biting it gently, then hard. She was shocked to hear her own moans as she straddled the realms of resistance and submission.
He pulled at the silk scarves and cords holding her sash in place, undoing the damask structure. Her mound was shaven but for a tiny tuft of black hair and she was naked in the midst of the brilliant silk. He parted the lower half of his robes.
She moaned as she felt him at her lips. She could not move or keep the probing tip from discovering her moisture or stop her moans. He took a soft cord from her sash, turned her over roughly, and tied her wrists together behind her. He slowly molded her neck, back, and ass, memorizing their shapes. She closed her eyes, trying to resist his strong strokes, glad that he could not see how he had warmed her. When he turned her over to face him, her breasts, raised by her arched back, invited his touch.
He coiled her hair around his fist and roughly pulled her head back. He licked her parted lips and her surrendered neck. He bit her nipples hard, even as she cried out in pain, for he knew his abuse wet her. He gazed cruelly into her eyes and cut into her flesh, crushing her petals.
She cried out, but as his strokes continued, she softened, and her moans became longer and lower, pulled from her depths. He forced her into submission and now guided her through its terrain. He released her passion, and her hips rose to meet him. Her moans became high, fast gasps. Her skin glistened and her legs strained to offer him more of her heat. Still he held her down by her hair. “No!” she cried desperately. Her heat inflamed her breasts and limbs.
He withdrew and roughly turned her on her belly and pulled up her hips. Her cheek pressed against the straw matting. Her hair lay in soft, black confusion across her face and shoulders. His hands traced her shoulders and back, and the tiny, dark-green tattoo below the right shoulder; it was her name, in Sanskrit. He held her firmly, drawing the tip of his hardness through the wetness, up and down, probing lightly. She started to breathe fast and to moan. He pierced her again, grinding against her, sometimes so fiercely she cried out in pain.
Before she could complete her pleasure, he stopped. He would take her again and his own satisfaction after he marked her. He allowed her to sit on her heels and drew her knees apart to see the bruised, wet flower. She did not resist and sat unmoving, her small palms resting on her thighs, as he slowly sipped his wine. Her back was straight and proud, pushing her breasts out, but her eyes were glazed with her need to be possessed. He smiled. He had broken open that secret, ineffable part of her. She was sweeter now, like a crushed flower. He untied her wrists.
“Prepare the bath,” he said.